I’ve seen two powerful operas in the past week — Philip Glass’s Appomattox at the Washington National Opera, and Lulu at one of the Met’s HD movie showings. Appomattox might be Philip’s masterpiece, and certainly the evenings I spent with it — I saw it twice — were some of the most intense and rewarding time I’ve ever had with classical music.
I’ll write about it after Thanksgiving, but now I’ll share some thoughts about Lulu that I posted on Facebook. The new William Kentridge production (a work of art in itself) is original, striking, and goes to the heart of the piece. The Lulu, Marlis Petersen, is just amazing: singing, acting, physicality, emotion. To see her drained of almost all life, fragile, hopeless in the last scene — all you had to do was look at her to just about weep. The rest of the cast sang robustly, and acted their parts really well.
But…as has been true of almost every Lulu I’ve encountered, live or on records, this one wasn’t truly musical. The score was sung and played without much sensitivity, which then leads people to think the work is more forbidding than it really is. I don’t want to minimize the heroic effort cast and orchestra must have put into this, to make it as good as it was. But there’s further to go.
Here’s what I wrote on Facebook:
How to tell if a Lulu performance is going to be musical: Listen carefully to the orchestra in the prologue, the scene with the animal trainer that begins the opera.
When it starts, the orchestra sounds pretty much full-bodied. But keep listening. Soon enough, the texture gets thinner. Fewer instruments play.
When that happens, does the tone of the playing change? Does the orchestra sound quieter? Or do the players keep playing in the same way, as if nothing had changed?
Listen also to the singer. When the orchestra thins down, does he change how he sings? Does he get softer, does he change his tone?
If not, and if the orchestra doesn’t change, you’re most likely in for a long night. A rich and complex score, full of variety, is going to be played and sung in a way that makes much of it sound unvaried.
We’d never accept that in Verdi or Mozart. But when we hear it in Lulu, we’re not likely to blame the performance. We often blame the work. We say it’s difficult, or harsh, when the truth is it’s just roughly played.
Needing more nuance
Lulu at the Met — which I saw in HD at the Mazza Gallerie in DC today — has this problem, apart from the Lulu, who’s marvelous in every way, and makes the scores sound musical.
The production is telling, and the entire cast acts the show wonderfully, and at least sings with robust voices.
But — just as in the other Lulus I’ve heard at the Met, conducted (as this one wasn’t) by Levine — the orchestra (which played accurately, and often enough with feeling) didn’t differentiate enough between one passage and another. Not enough contrast in dynamics, and tempo, and above all in mood.
Take the music of Alwa’s scenes with Lulu, which Berg structures as a rondo. The recurring theme was never stressed enough when it recurred, never differentiated enough from the contrasting stuff we hear between the recurrences.
And that’s a subtle example. The fault doesn’t only, or even mainly lie with the musicians. Conductors are very much to blame. When I was an active critic in the 80s, I studied Lulu and Wozzeck performances, on records and at the Met, and found that even top conductors — Karl Böhm! Boulez! Levine! — would simply ignore some of the dynamic and tempo markings.
The score would say piano, but the music didn’t get soft. A ritard would be marked, and the orchestra wouldn’t slow down. Only Christoph von Dohnanyi, on his Wozzeck and Lulu recordings, followed all the markings in the scores, and made the pieces sound consistently like music.
At the Met, the singers (apart from Lulu, and, a lot of the time, Susan Graham, who sings Geschwitz) sung in an unvaried way that’s robust, but not very musical. And not at all in accord with either the letter or the spirit of the piece.
That happens even in scenes that aren’t very varied, vocally. Like the scene where Dr. Schön tells the Painter the truth about Lulu. I could hear the orchestra get louder throughout the scene, as it’s meant to, but the singers were singing full out right from the start. [ADDED FOR THIS POST: So the scene didn’t build, as it’s supposed to. It seemed to stay in one place, again making the opera seem difficult. When this is a scene whose musical shape anyone could understand.]
Make it more lyrical
A particular offender is the tenor who sings Alwa, Daniel Brenna, because so much of his part is supposed to be lyrical. And also because at one point he’s describing Lulu’s body with musical metaphors, and says her legs are cantabile.
At which point he sings cantabile, with wonderful, deft nuance. I wanted to shake him! Hey, Alwa! Sung the rest of your part that way, too!
When the singers sing with such unvaried sound, and without much phrasing, it becomes even harder to hear what the orchestra is doing. Naturally we listen to the singers first. They’re enacting the drama for us.
We hear the orchestra in the background. If the singers never vary, it blots out our perception of the orchestra. It’s hard to hear the changes in the orchestra, if the singers don’t point them out by changing along with them. Especially when the orchestra isn’t changing enough, either.
We can do better
I’m not blaming these people, They all worked hard to bring the piece alive. The singers inhabited the drama, and as far as I could tell without a score, sang very much on pitch, which decades ago we couldn’t take for granted.
The musicians played with spirit, accurately, and pretty well in tune, which in this music is an achievement.
But I suspect they all give up a little, or the coaches and conductors do, and faced with a work of such daunting difficulty, let standards slip a little. To judge from what Susan Graham and Deborah Voigt (who hosted the broadcast) said at intermission about singing Berg, simply getting the notes right was a job of eye-popping difficulty. Almost as if they’d had to learn a language from another planet, buzzed and clicked by aliens with physiology different from ours.
But still I’d like to dream. That in many places when the orchestra falls into a hush — which even in s rough performance like this one sometimes happened — a coach or the conductor would say to whoever sings next, “The orchestra is quiet! Why don’t you get quiet, too?”