Kirill Petrenko directs Berg’s opera Lulu

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COMPOSERS: Alban Berg
LABELS: Bel Air
ALBUM TITLE: Berg
WORKS: Lulu
PERFORMER: Marlis Petersen, Daniela Sindram, Rachael Wilson, Rainer Trost, Bo Skovhus, Matthias Klink; Bavarian State Orchestra/Kirill Petrenko; dir. Dmitri Tcherniakov (Munich, 2015)
CATALOGUE NO: BAC 129

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Controversy has surrounded Lulusince its 1937 Zürich premiere, in the form Berg left unfinished at his untimely death two years earlier. Still problematic today, the opera’s key question concerns surprisingly little-changed social attitudes towards women, sex and class hierarchy: exactly who – or what – is Lulu? 

Director Dmitri Tcherniakov rejects the cliché of a monstrous, pseudo-innocent vamp who torments men unto death, suicide and murder – including her own. Yet his protagonist, the vocally stunning Marlis Petersen, feels reined in from her extreme coloratura. White-costumed, in a set comprising glass labyrinths, cold lighting and anonymous crowds, she is neither determined rebel nor passive victim, but self-endangered by her desperation to be loved – by more or less anyone, but especially her businessman ‘protector’ Dr Schön (Bo Skovhus, more brooding than menacing). Thus subtler clichés take hold – and Tcherniakov hardly avoids caricature in portraying the lesbian Geschwitz (Daniela Sindram) as a mannishly pathetic bluestocking, while the composer Alwa (Matthias Klink) remains a dithering aesthete until his violent demise. For all Lulu’s teasing come-ons, the production lacks erotic charge, and the savage black comedy that Berg carefully retained from Wedekind’s Lulu plays is dulled from a lampooning exposure of bourgeois hypocrisy into a basically domesticated – if complex and viscerally brutal – narrative of lovers, jealousy and greed.

Yet all is very far from lost, thanks to an impeccable cast who attack that narrative with exceptional music-dramatic skill, and the ravishingly transparent playing of the Bavarian State Orchestra under music director, Kirill Petrenko. Petersen invests Lulu with a paradoxical strength in vulnerability, killing herself rather than dying by Jack the Ripper’s hand. Close-up camera work makes the most of intimate gestures and facial expressions lost in the theatre but which, if not visionary, help to make this Lulu tragically human. 

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Steph Power