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Carnage and Kentridge: Metropolitan Opera’s “Lulu,” Then and Now

Enriched by more than four decades of avid museum- and performance-going, I’m both blessed and cursed with having seen so many definitive exhibitions and performances that I’m hard to impress. I was knocked out and drained by the Metropolitan Opera’s presentation of Alban Berg‘s savage “Lulu”—the one in 1980, with the emotionally intense Teresa Stratas in the title role and the masterful James Levine in the pit.

Tomorrow you can view in local movie theaters a live performance of the Met’s current “Lulu,” with the title role embodied by Marlis Petersen (for whom this is both the 10th and last production in which she will play the conscienceless temptress). The  conductor for this (and for the performance I saw last Saturday night) is Lothar Koenigs, who replaced the scheduled Levine on short notice. (You can view the production’s trailer here.)

For art-lings who are undeterred by hours of aural dissonance (which I love, in Berg’s case), the Met’s new William Kentridge-designed production will be riveting—perhaps too much so.

Kentridge's opening curtain for "Lulu" at the Met Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

William Kentridge’s first-act curtain for “Lulu” at the Met
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Petersen is an astonishingly athletic “Lulu,” endlessly jerking and contorting her body in grotesquely seductive poses. But neither her impressive singing (not in the Stratas stratosphere) nor Koenigs’ astringent rendition of the score (lacking Levine’s luster) can compete with the distracting hyperactivity of the monumental animated projections of German Expressionist-influenced drawings by Kentridge (whose hand is sometimes seen wielding the brush).

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

For much of the opera, the animated backdrop images (many of which appear to have been painted on dictionary pages, as above) morph non-stop among sketches of Lulu and the other characters, Rorschach-like inkblots (created by folding sheets of newsprint), and references to news of the outside world.

I finally decided that the only way to appreciate the music was to stop looking at the seductive visuals. Perhaps sensing audience fatigue and wanting us let us stay focused on Lulu’s harrowing end, Kentridge finally did calm the visual mayhem, late in this long evening. My appreciation of his art was compromised by my location in a high box, which allowed me only glimpses of the auxiliary projection screens, on either side of the main one.

With the projection interjections and the insertion of two mime actors, functioning like a silent Greek chorus and further dissociating the audience from the action, the production seemed to be aiming for Brechtian detachment—an interesting and apt concept.

I wasn’t as bothered by the busy backdrop of changing images and animated drawings in the previous Met-Kentridge collaboration—Shostakovich‘s absurdist “The Nose.” But that was my first experience of the opera, so I had nothing to compare it to.

Sometimes it’s good not to be jaded.

an ArtsJournal blog