•Alban Berg: Lulu.
West Edge Opera,
Jonathan Khuner, music director;
Elkhanah Pulitzer, stage director
seen in Oakland, California,
July 25, 2015.
Aug. 2, 2 pm; Aug. 8, 8 pm
|Philip Skinner as Dr. Schön, Emma McNairy as Lulu; Act I of Alban Berg's Lulu.
Photo: Lucille Lawrence
Eastside Road, July 28, 2015—We saw Alban Berg’s opera Lulu the other night, produced by the East Bay’s West Edge Opera in the abandoned Southern Pacific railroad station in Oakland (California). I can only say the event was phenomenal: we were so impressed we immediately bought tickets for a return hearing, this coming Sunday (August 2).
Berg wrote the opera, his second, between roughly 1930 and 1935, leaving it unfinished at his death. For years it was known only by its first two acts though the third act was virtually complete in short score and much of its orchestration had been completed for the suite Berg had extracted from the opera for concert purposes. Berg’s widow refused access to the manuscript, however, and it was only on her death, in 1976, that advances could be made toward realizing a complete performing version of the opera.
The opera is scored for twelve singers and large orchestra: woodwinds in threes plus saxophone; four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, and tuba; an active six-performer percussion section including vibraphone; important harp and piano parts; and a full string ensemble; a 16-piece off-stage jazz band including banjo (most of these can come from the pit orchestra).
Many of the vocal roles are quite demanding; the music is written in Berg’s version of Schoenberg’s “twelve-tone” system and is often dissonant, wide-ranging, and precise; the subject-matter of the opera is dark, violent at times, and discomforting; and Berg’s stage directions are carefully calculated and expressed in detail.
The result, certainly here in California, has been a very limited number of performances and productions, and those I’ve seen (San Francisco Opera, 1965 with Evelyn Lear; 1971 with Anja Silja) were truncated, rather routine in their staging, and frustrating.
A pity, because Lulu is one of the great operas of its or any century. On the first level, it’s arresting, fascinating, with a “story” that speaks to both its and our time and a score that resourcefully exploits the most fascinating and athletic possibilities of its voices and instruments.
This first level will leave many of us confused and either fatigued or exhilarated, possibly both. It’s a pity many do not go on to explore the work further, as Lulu is as fascinating intellectually — both as a historical document and as a work of art — as it is telling emotionally.
Perhaps it will become better known now, as in 2009 the Eberhard Kloke, one of two or three composers who have tackled the problem of orchestrating the third act, completed a reduction of Berg’s orchestration. West Edge used an orchestra of only twenty musicians: single winds (two clarinets), one percussionist, harp, piano, and nine strings.
I can think of few opera performances I’ve seen as impressively rewarding as this Lulu. Every member of the cast brought real intelligence to his role, projecting character and drama both physically and vocally, and looking the role perfectly persuasively. In addition, the voices themselves were marvelous: accurate, the vocal lines nicely phrased, the leaps landing persuasively on pitch, the dynamic contrasts well managed, ensemble singing (and fast-intercut interpolations, which Berg’s often conversational style requires) thoughtfully and effectively handled.
The opera centers of course on its title role, and I can’t imagine a better Lulu than Emma McNairy, who sings and acts with utter conviction and fabulous technique. But the rest of the cast is equally successful: Philip Skinner suave and controlling as Schön; Alexander Boyer as the warm, sympathetic, vulnerable Alwa; Buffy Baggott as a tender, at times uncomprehending Geschwitz; Bojan Kneževič as the sinister, shadowy Schigolch; Zachary Altman strutting and cynical as the Animal Trainer, strutting and stupid as the Athlete; and lesser roles were equal, taken by Erin Neff, Joseph Raymond Meyers, Michael Jankosky, Michael Crozier and Audrey Douglass.
The entire effort was Jonathan Khuner’s baby, and he conducted it not only well but apparently effortlessly — having, I’m sure, rehearsed and coached it with precision, economy, and persuasion. His orchestra supported the production with impressive élan.
And nearly as welcome, in some ways perhaps even more: Elkhanah Pulitzer’s stage direction, on Chad Owens’s economical and resourceful set (and with Christine Crook’s admirable costumes), respected Berg’s indications almost to the letter. Opera is supposed to be a total art form, appealing to eye, ear, heart, and brain with an integral, focussed event. Too often stage directors (and the producers who engage them) are willing to subvert the composer and librettist — in the case of Lulu, Berg is both — by superimposing a third artistic vision on an already complex work.
That did not happen at West Edge, and the result was a Lulu its composer would recognize and, I think, approve enthusiastically. The lagniappe to all this perfection and authenticity was the setting, a huge, brooding, used-up railroad station that seemed to be — visually, architecturally, even acoustically — a metaphor for the ruined first half of the twentieth century; the worn-out, no longer appreciated or maintained shell of what was once an elaborate, beautiful, and even practical accommodation of men and women of all classes of society.
There’s much more to say. I haven’t mentioned the admirable film, for example, cunningly structured by Jeremy Knight to accompany Berg’s ingenious centerpiece interlude, a forerunner of Robert Wilson’s “knee play” device articulating the drama’s exposition and calamitous resolution. I haven’t mentioned the intelligently translated supertitles, alas too frequently fading out against the buff concrete walls on which they’re projected (can the text-stye be changed to “outline”?)
I haven’t made an attempt at presenting the opera itself, which Wikipedia will do for me; and, beyond, George Perle’s fine book on the opera; and, for those who can use it, Erwin Stein’s masterly piano reduction of the first two acts, available for the downloading online.
Most unhappily of all I haven’t sufficiently sung the praises of conductor, crew, and cast; I don’t think I can rise to the task. This was a superb evening of theater, a magnificent interpretation of a masterpiece, a provocative and absorbing performance with what will be, I know, a long-lasting finish.