Friday, November 11, 2011

Lulu in Paris: Talented Mr. Decker (2)

Lulu, Opéra Bastille in Paris, October 28 2011

Conductor ..... Michael Schønwandt
Director ..... Willy Decker

Lulu ..... Laura Aikin
Gräfin Geschwitz ..... Jennifer Larmore
Eine Theatergarderobiere, Ein Gymnasiast, Ein Groom ..... Andrea Hill
Der Maler, Der Neger ..... Marlin Miller
Dr Schön, Jack ..... Wolfgang Schöne
Alwa ..... Kurt Streit
Der Tierbändiger, Ein Athlet ..... Scott Wilde
Schigolch ..... Franz Grundheber
Der Prinz, Der Kammerdiener, Der Marquis ..... Robert Wörle
Der Theaterdirektor, Der Bankier ..... Victor Von Halem
Eine Fünfzehnjährige ..... Julie Mathevet
Ihre Mutter ..... Marie-Thérèse Keller
Die Kunstgewerblerin ..... Marianne Crebassa
Der Journalist ..... Damien Pass
Ein Diener ..... Ugo Rabec

Paris Opera Orchestra and Chorus

After two truly bad productions (Salomé and Faust) the Paris Opera managed to bend the quality curve thanks to the three wonderfully revamped productions -- prepared with great care, with formidable cast in each of the three, and with the orchestra showing its best colors. Apart from the superb Tannhäuser, two excellent revivals were the Willy Decker creations. Since I already discussed La Clemenza di Tito here, now it's time to throw a few lines about Lulu.

I should first say that I was among admirers of Decker's La Traviata, of his Boris Godunov, and I loved his Death in Venice, but was somewhat less enthusiastic about Die tote Stadt, or Der Fliegende Holländer, or even Eugene Onegin. Although good, these latter shows --recently rerun at the Paris Opera-- could not match the level of the first three and so, before the beginning of the 2011-2012 operatic season, I had great respect for Willy Decker's work and his 'purified theater' but was not really a fan. Now, after these two autumnal shows (namely, La Clemenza di Tito and Lulu) I'm hopping back on the bandwagon: Willy Decker is a brilliant opera director! Even though his productions lacks audacity, the know-how is all there. None of his shows is trivial, they always contain a few good and clearly presented ideas that make his basically narrative style; they are distinguishable and certainly  memorable.

His Lulu is a particularly good piece of work. Its simplicity and its clarity are seductive, but it is the underlying idea that propels the already fascinating story about Lulu and makes this show work marvelously well, catching the subtleties in spite of the enormous stage of Opéra Bastille. The sets are a vertical cross-section of an arena where all the story will unravel. The shape remains the same in all three acts (there were two intermissions), but the colors will change. In the stands (of that arena) we see a bunch of male characters, all wearing black trench-coats and hats (à la Humphrey Bogart.) Before the show begins, this is how the stage looks like: Lulu is sitting on the top of a step-ladder,  face to the stands (back turned to us), watching the stands filling up with people.

In parallel, at the same time, we --the real public-- are filling up the theater. This symmetry is important for the director's message.

As it turns out, the sinister all-in-black characters represent the men from Lulu's past, her and her present life evolve in the arena. Only at the beginning there is no contact between her past and her present (c.f. pic above.) She is able to live the present moment without dwelling on her past. However, as soon as the story begins, her past will start to follow her like a black cloud, it will play a crucial role in her social interaction, and it will tailor her fate.
A physical contact between her present and her past will be established too: two ladders will connect the arena with the stands, which is how Schigolch enters the stage (from the stands -- from her past.)
Lulu's past will progressively play a bigger role in her life, it will (directly and indirectly) deteriorate her life, ruin her future, and eventually send her to death.

In the latter parts of the show there are more and more ladders connecting the stands with the arena, they become thicker and darker (on the pale background) and in the last parts of the show the line between her present and her past progressively disappear and all the male characters from her past will descend to the arena, surround her like a mob, and stab her to death. The idea is simple, but it works impeccably throughout the show, and allows to Decker to emphasize several interesting subtleties (especially in Act 2.) The rest is what you can find in this extraordinary libretto [c.f. synopsis here.]

The symmetry between us and the sinister male characters in the stands seems to be Decker's way to warn us not to rush and judge Lulu. That would be disappointingly simple thing to do. It is very easy to despise Lulu after her first flirt with the Painter. Most (all) of the male characters are greedy, possessive, sleazy, evil... It is easy to dislike them too. But since all the characters are three-dimensional you cannot dislike one more than another, even if the overall taste/atmosphere is Berg-ianly dark.

Most importantly, this simple/efficient idea to organize the stage action allowed Decker to avoid the clichés. He does not take sides with any of the characters, except probably Geschwitz for whom he clearly had a soft spot. That is quite an achievement actually.
Lulu is far too often portrayed as a vile, obnoxious, "easy" woman, and her tragic end acquires a logical side -- which is a moralistic, and arguably "misogynist", interpretation of the Wedekind's play. Contrary to that, another --as often encountered-- way to stage Lulu is the one in which she is portrayed as a heroine, as a victim of the judgmental world she lives in, bound to end tragically because the society is run by men. Clearly, either of the two options is simplistic. Decker rightly focuses on the social impact and the interplay between Lulu's past on her present life. The past of a seductive woman [real or invented by jealous or rejected men] is too heavy a burden, and Lulu had no chance to escape it or live freely. In that respect Lulu as a woman indeed appears as a victim. And yet she is manipulative, greedy, jealous... not exactly the qualities easily associated with a victim. This is the why Lulu is not a usual one-dimensional operatic character. She is a seductive woman craving love and affection. She's an object of lust but she is not loved by none of all her men. That defines her actions. The only person who truly loved her was actually Countess Geschwitz, and this is why Decker portrayed her [Geschwitz] as the only totally positive character in the drama.

The social aspect of Lulu's beauty and the impact of her past lead to her death. This is the nucleus of this drama and Decker recognized it wonderfully. He succeeded in preserving the ambiguity of this play/opera: it is never clear whether it is a tragedy, or an ode to the freedom of women.

To make this show a total treat, the music was at the highest level imaginable in the world today. The Paris Opera orchestra performed this Berg in a highly lyric way and, just like in Tannhäuser, the result is peculiar and to me wonderful. Michael Schønwandt was very focused, and visibly enjoyed himself conducting.
The cast was knock-out. You could hardly imagine any better than this.  Laura Aikin is a stunning Lulu.  Many thought Christine Schäfer killed Lulu by her smashing performance in the Graham Vick production that you can see on DVD (compulsory viewing!) Laura Aikin is the Lulu of our time. She proves it time and time again (see her Lulu on DVD - Zurich production) In this show, she shows all she's got. She is a superb actress. She incarnates the characters wonderfully (experience shows), and she sings it magnificently, which is not an easy thing to do in a huge hall of the Opéra Bastille.  Also wonderful was Jennifer Larmore, one of those singers who is a true artist. She is a superb Rossini mezzo voice who excels in baroque, and who push the boundaries by this riveting Geschwitz, while preparing to sing Lady Macbeth in Geneva. Each role she takes, she makes it special. Among men, the most impressive was  Marlin Miller, a phenomenal tenor with that rare combination of beautiful, sunny, and powerful voice, who flies on the stage -- a total vocal and scenic engagement that were eventually rewarded by the loudest rounds applauses from the public. I was glad to see Scott Wilde among performers. He has the power, stamina, and the voice for the role of an Athlete. One of the most famous Wozzeck, Franz Grundheber was brilliant as usual, and Kurt Streit, Robert Wörle, Andrea Hill, and Wolfgang Schöne completed the formidable cast in which every singer was beyond reproach.

Very scarce production photos [all ©Opéra National de Paris]:

Marlin Miller and Wolfgang Schöne

Lulu and the creeps above

Alwa and Lulu

Video excerpt of the final scene can be found on this link.

My post-show photos:

The most amazing Laura Aikin as Lulu

Wonderful chorus members -- this is how the stage looks like in the last act

Johannes Koegel-Dorfs (Doctor/Prof), Robert Wörle (Marquis), and  Franz Grundheber (Schigolch)

Marlin Miller (Painter/Blackman), and Andrea Hill (Ein Groom)

Franz Grundheber and Scott Wilde

Jennifer Larmore and Marlin Miller

Laura Aikin, Wolfgang Schöne, and Jennifer Larmore

Lulu and Maestro Schønwandt

It was about the time for the main entrance to Opéra Bastille to be finally opened, and that was a weird experience. Extra weird was to see a group of Cuban people protesting against the Obama Administration, and demanding the liberation of The Cuban Five... That was really weird!

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