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A Room With Too Many Views

Gran Teatre del Liceu
11/03/2010 -  & November 7, 10, 13, 16*, 2010
Alban Berg: Lulu
Patricia Petibon (Lulu), Julia Juon (Countess Geschwitz), Silvia de la Muela (Bell boy/Student), Ashley Holland (Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper), Paul Groves (Alwa), Will Hartmann (Painter/Negro), Franz Grundheber (Schigolch), Andreas Hörl (Athlete), Robert Wörle (Professor/Prince/Majordomo), Kurt Gysen (Banker/Theatre’s director)
Orchestra of the Grand Teatre del Liceu, Michael Boder (Conductor)
Gran Teatre del Liceu/Grand Théâtre de Genève (co-production), Olivier Py (director), Pierre-André Weitz (set and costume designer), Alberto Rodríguez (lighting designer)

F. Grundheber, P. Petibon (© Bofill/Courtesy of G. T. del Liceu)

When Olivier’s Py production of Lulu debut in Geneva (February 2010) it carried warnings regarding content and its insuitability for those under the age of 16. No such caveats came from Liceu but its audience was much older and voted with its feet. The usually sold out by subscription house was nowhere near full and there was much more than the usual attrition between acts, most notably between acts II and III.

This was Py’s show all the way with help from the in-one’s-face scenery and lightning which was almost vertigo inducing. The chaotic props and costumes whose mixed eras made little sense caused even more distraction. The house curtain rose 15 minutes early, showing us a stage awash with neon and populated with basketball playing men and hookers of all types; dissimulated sex acts began at once, which was a portent of what was to come. Prominent upstage was a large rotating color wheel and multi-colored neon signs in German, French and English (everything from the almost irrelevant "I hate sex" to "Ich bin frei" (I am free), "DEATH", "NACHT", "Meine Seele" (my soul), "silence", "LULU" and, of course, "SEXE"). Multi-leveled sets put the action in three areas of windows and platforms as they traveled across the stage in constant motion.

We are caught off-guard as the ring master introduces the bizarre collection of characters-large bobble-head dolls, fairy tale characters, a female with a Death’s head mask, animals and a very strange ape taking seats on stage, facing the audience, as if to say "Who are the odd ones here?". What follows shows that it’s a bit of both, them for the obscenities they are about to engage in and us for complacently viewing same.

Patricia Petibon’s title character was no ill-used young woman whose destiny was totally out of her control, but rather a jaded "been there, done that" female to whom sex seems like an hourly pass-time. She begins mostly nude and ends the same way, giving us no way to empathize with her. This Lulu is the "user", lifting her skirt as casually as shaking hands. While this is not an infrequent characterization, I prefer the portrayal of Lulu as being part of a larger picture not of her design. Speaking of pictures, another clue to the path of this production is the large, nude portrait of Petibon as Eve, complete with tree, apple and serpent which is prominently and frequently displayed on stage.

This was the end of the run of the show, so perhaps voices were tired, but the major performers should know how to better pace themselves. Petibon may be considered one of today’s pre-eminent Lulu’s (there are fewer than a handful, making this easy), but her small French-baroque voice seemed taxed here. Her German diction was excellent, but she straight-tones, resorting to an odd trick of jaw, tongue and palette manipulation (all very visible from the parterre) coupled with portamento, scooping and dynamic manipulations to get by. She was hard to hear on her lower range and shrill and harsh up top. I was left longing for the subtleties of Christine Schäfer or the nuances of Marlis Petersen.

Will Hartmann as the Painter/Negro had a good strong voice but seemed curiously uninvolved. Dressing the enigmatic Schigolch in a clown suit made no sense and he was always accompanied by an ugly mechanical dog. Many of the men in this production were extremely “portly” and their size led one to expect large voices, which was not the case, especially for Ashley Holland as Dr. Schön. Even his descent into madness and subsequent death was totally unremarkable. To be fair, Mr. Holland was not scheduled to sing the entire run but Michael Volle, with whom he was double cast, cancelled his share of the performances, leaving Mr. Holland to step in.

Paul Groves as Alwa sounded very tired which often made him seem like a bystander in scenes in which he should have been more prominent. I’ve heard him in much better form so this performance seemed an anomaly.

Silvia de la Muela, the young mezzo featured as school boy/bell hop, had much stage time but had little voice and poor direction, making her character simply annoying. As the Athlete, Andreas Hörl, spent the evening dressed in an ape suit, sometimes complete with head, jumping around as a hairy voyeur in Act I, eagerly observing at close range the sexual encounters between the Painter and Lulu, even masturbating with the Spanish flag while watching. His voice was uneven and his acting, when unmasked, resorted to leers and wagging eyebrows.

For me, the one honorable character in this opera has always been the Countess Geschwitz, whose love for Lulu is not dependent upon what the younger woman can do for her. Julia Juon fell short on all counts in this role. Her voice was inaudible in all but her solo recitative and her acting, nothing short of terrible. Granted, she was given only one outfit to wear during the entire show along with grotesque, stereotypical makeup and hair, but if one is not moved by the Countess’ final "Lulu! Mein Engel! Laß dich noch einmal sehn! Ich bin dir nah! Bleibe dir nah! In Ewigkeit!" (Lulu, my angel! Let me see you one more time! I´m near you, I´ll always be near you, in eternity), we are left with nothing. Instead, here Mr. Py gives us cheap distracting tricks rather than letting emotion wash over us to the wrenching conclusion. Alwa has been murdered, Schigolch has decamped with the Christmas tree and snow begins to be dumped from buckets in the flies as Lulu’s final "client", Jack-the-Ripper, enters. Dressed as Father Christmas, he and Lulu circle each other in a silence dance. The Countess grabs a conveniently placed robe and attempts to hang herself from a less than 2 meters tall sign, which only proved to be distracting in a comical way. Santa slashes Lulu’s throat, although she remains standing (thankfully, sans blood), the Countess is stabbed in the back, cries out and we certainly get a last, plentiful view of Lulu as Jack removes her coat, leaving her naked and standing, arms out, as if on the cross, center-stage, for several moments before the lights go dark.

The star of this evening was the excellent Liceu orchestra under the baton of Michael Boder. They handled the extremely difficult score better than I’ve ever heard it played with the conductor covering for on stage errors and weaknesses. Perhaps they were a bit too loud at times but Berg’s Leitmotiv shown as a result.

Lulu, never an easy opera to deal with at any time, was made more difficult and uncomfortable by a director who appeared to impose his vision by force, leaving the house and audience no choice but to be swept into his vortex.

Suzanne Torrey



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