Alban Berg (1885-1934) may be the most notorious member of the Second Viennese School, even more so than leader Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and Anton Webern (1883-1945). Berg, the most romantic of the school, was as influenced by Gustav Mahler as Schoenberg. Berg died young and did not live long enough to compose a large a body of work. However, he did compose what may very well be the two most repulsive operas ever written. Even Schoenberg was aghast, and urged his younger colleague to discontinue writing such filth. A premature death stopped Berg from finishing his final opera, “Lulu.” He completed two of the three acts and the final act was completed in the short particell format. Some forty years later, Friedrich Cerha completed the orchestration for the third act, which premiered under the direction of Pierre Boulez. Both “Wozzeck” and “Lulu” are extreme operas from an extreme composer. One would think that this fact would make opera fans receptive to interpretive stagings.
Olivier Py belongs to that school of enfant terrible stage directors working in European opera today. Py, while creating mixed reactions in Europe, is among the most in-demand and successful stage directors. Singers clamor to work for him, his productions usually sell out within a matter of hours, and are almost always considered newsworthy events. The European climate for opera stems from a different mindset altogether. Most telling was a recent newscast covering the expressionist nightmare “Magic Flute” staged by Martin Kusej. This “Flute” received wildly mixed reactions. The audience was torn between passionate applause and equally passionate catcalls. The newscaster shrugged: “It would not be an event if opera goers were not challenged.”
In the States, opera is seen, by and large, as an art form that has gone the way of the dinosaur. American opera houses desperately beg for contributions and wait for the annual staging of “La Boheme” to (hopefully) pull them out of the red. It has been nearly a half century since an American staged opera was living art and a newsworthy event. In the early 1970s even Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” was deemed sacrilegious and quickly shut down. Contemporary America, spoon fed on banality, considers the antics of reality TV “stars” of higher interest.
Berg’s “take your dissonance and adult themes like a man” Lulu is not for sissies or the artistically challenged. Berg wrote the libretto himself from Frank Wedekind’s play, “Pandora’s Box” (the same work on which G.W. Pabst’s 1929 film is based). The opera opens in a carnivalesque milieu, and among the ringmaster’s menagerie is the German pierrot Lulu. Her patron, a Dr. Schon, has hired the Painter to create a portrait of Lulu. After Dr. Schon and his musician son, Alwa, leave the studio, the Painter makes passes at Lulu until they are interrupted by her husband. Upon stumbling onto the sight, he succumbs to a fatal heart attack. Lulu realizes she is now a rich widow and marries the Painter.
The Painter becomes very successful, but unbeknownst to him, Lulu is receiving letters from her numerous lovers, one of which is the Countess Geschwitz. The tramp Schigolch visits Lulu. He is her father and long time lover, having first molested Lulu when she was a child. News comes that Dr. Schon is now engaged, and Lulu is upset. When Dr. Schon arrives at the studio he informs the Painter of Lulu’s many adulteries. Schon also reveals that he has been having his way with Lulu since she was a mere twelve years old. Devastated, the Painter slashes his own throat.
Widowed again, Lulu informs Alwa that an African prince wishes to marry her. Alwa, (possibly representing Berg himself) contemplates writing an opera about Lulu. Dr. Schon realizing that he loves Lulu, breaks off his engagement and marries Lulu instead.
In the second act, Schon becomes increasingly jealous over Lulu’s many affairs, including her relationship with the lesbian Countess. Alwa announces that he too is in love with Lulu. A schoolboy is another of Lulu’s lovers; he hides in Lulu’s apartment when Schon confronts his wife. An argument breaks out, and the schoolboy shoots and kills Schon.
In a silent film interlude, Lulu is tried and convicted, catches cholera in prison, and is transferred to hospital where she escapes with the help of the Countess, Schigolch, Alwa, and an acrobat. First in Paris, then in London, Lulu supports herself and her entourage by becoming a prostitute, with Schigolch and Alwa acting as her pimps.
Several parties try to blackmail Lulu, and she is still wanted by the German police for Schon’s murder. After much bad luck, including a scandalous financial investment, Alwa, Schigolch and Lulu are living together in poverty. The Countess returns, having bought Lulu’s portrait in a gallery. Lulu is clearly upset at the sight of the portrait by her dead painter husband. A client, the Negro, arrives, and Alwa demands that he pay for Lulu’s services in advance. A fight between Alwa and the Negro ends with Alwa shot dead. Schigolch hides Alwa’s body.
The Countess, despondent over Lulu’s apparent rejection, contemplates suicide, but refrains and vows to return to Germany and work for women’s rights. Lulu has a new client. She is so intrigued with him that she offers him sexual services for free, but it turns out the John is Jack the Ripper! The Countess hears Lulu screams and discovers The Ripper, knife in hand. The slasher then kills the Countess and escapes.
Themes of Catholicism and homosexuality permeate Py’s stagings. His Lulu begins with neon lights flashing: “I Hate Sex.” Py’s Lulu, as portrayed and sung by Patricia Petitbon, has no real control over her fate. The only tool she has is in her sexual charisma, which she shrewdly uses to her advantage. Clearly, Lulu was shaped by her treatment at the hands of her father, Schigolch, and patron, Schon. Neither Py nor Petitbon, however, succumb to phony sentimentalism. Py’s sets are adorned in violent, nauseating, kaleidoscope colors which call to mind something akin to the hues of Miles Davis “Live Evil” period. These colors echo the femme fatale characterization of Lulu, for whom sexual predation is but a past time.
The opening begins like something out of Tod Browning`s The Show (1927) with Lulu presented by the Ringmaster as the main attraction among his wild beasts. A sprightly ape, a bobble head, and assorted animals appear before Lulu emerges, robed in man-eater red. A mere few minutes into the film, Lulu disrobes and she will be nude off and on throughout the film.
Amidst the carnival milieu are sex shops, funeral homes, and pornographic cinemas. Couples engage in simulated sexual acts in shop windows as the Painter fornicates with a bound Lulu. A ferris wheel continually churns behind all. When Schigolch arrives, he is dressed as an Emmett Kelly style tramp clown. Lulu dons a pink bunny suit and goes down on him. Conductor Michael Boder masterfully handles this extremely difficult score, alternating between jagged harmonies and free jazz, without skipping a beat.
As Schon reveals Lulu’s true nature to the Painter, death appears from above as a well-endowed topless woman in a black miniskirt and a death’s head mask. A large portrait paints Lulu as the eternal scapegoat temptress of Genesis: Eve.
The mobile set shifts from a clutter of excessive wealth to Py’s silent staged interlude, where Lulu is roughly interrogated by the police on minimalistic, black and white, silent film-styled sets. Much hubbub was made over the projection of a real hardcore film on the set, but the porn is blurred and witnessed by a jaded, anonymous crowd. The Painter reappears, in black face, as the Negro. The mobile set set shifts again for a finale doused in snow. Schon reappears as the Ripper, attired in a Santa Claus suit, and does his dirty deed with abandoned glee.
Py’s Lulu was met with both standing ovations and attempts to ban the touring production in some areas. “Lulu” has been filmed several times. Christine Schafer made a superb Lulu in a 1996 production. She was helped enormously there by Andrew Davis’ superb conducting, but Graham Vick’s production was a bit too minimalistic. In a 2002 staging, Laura Aikin, while vocally no match for Schafer, likewise made a compelling Lulu, presenting the character as an unquestionable victim of Schon. However, this beautiful and violent production utilized the now obsolete two-act version of the opera, and conductor Franz Wesler-Most could not seem to master the score to the degree Davis did. Although all three of these versions have much going for them, Py’s Lulu is the most successfully filmed Lulu to date. Like Berg, Py filters the hedonistic source material from Wedekind through artistic sophistication. Despite the supposed “shock elements” of Py’s production, the director shows cerebral restraint in the depiction of violence and wisely concentrates on the terrifying sexual absurdity of the opera.