Saturday, June 07, 2008

Alban Berg's Lulu and Wozzeck


Lulu (1935), the second of the two operas by Viennese composer Alban Berg, is available on DVD with a 1997 performance by the London Philharmonic and the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, conducted by Andrew Davis. The libretto was adapted from two plays by Frank Wedekind: “Erdgeist” (“Earth Spirit”) and “Die Buchse der Pandore” (“Pandora’s Box”). Christine Schafer sings the part of Lulu; Kathryn Harries is the countess Geschwitz .

The opera (in three Acts, running about three hours) was intended to be written in three symmetrical acts, with the third complete only in short score and complete by Friedrich Cerha. The story is well known, as it follows the disintegration of the life of Lulu, through several affairs and marriages (including a brief episode with a lesbian countess), to her shooting of one of her spouses Dr. Schon, her arrest and imprisonment and treatment for cholera, her “recovery” to activity in a casino, to her life of homelessness in the streets, finally to her death at the hands of Jack the Ripper. The opera is a major example of expressionism, and to some the subject matter seems nihilistic.

In the middle of Act II there occurs an orchestral intermezzo, written as a palindrome, accompanied by a black-and-white silent film showing Lulu’s arrest and prison after the shooting.

The music is fascinating. It is most composed according to the twelve-tone system of atonality developed by Arnold Schoenberg. In a number of passages (such as the beginning of Act I, Scene III), though, the music is surprisingly postromantic and lush, sometimes recalling the palette of Wagner in Tristan and Isolde, or perhaps the Mahler of the Ninth and Tenth Symphonies. The music has been termed “good old-fashioned romantic opera” however morbid the story. Act II ends with a shattering orchestral climax, perhaps echoing the mood of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Curiously, Mahler works some jazz into his ambient Viennese Post Romanticism.

The stage in this performance is stark and filled with circles and ellipses and late 30s geometric forms, with brick walls and segmented wooden floors that move in various patterns. Some of the activity is moderately explicit.

The opera was broadcast from the Met on PBS in early 1981.

I saw Berg’s first opera, Wozzeck (1914-1922), at the Met myself in the fall of 1974, shortly after I had moved into New York City. The opera starts out with the shavings scene and ends with the drowning and deserted children in utter desolation. The form is interesting. Act I is a suite, Act II is a “symphony”, and Act III is a set of “inventions” on different objects, with the famous fortissimo note B before the drowning, and even the use of an out-of-tune piano. The music is hyperchromatic and nearly atonal, but does not use the formal twelve tone rows. Despite the sparing, intimate and open orchestration, there is a kind of opulence to the work.

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