Vocalist - Tenor
Chicago's New "Lulu" Gets It All Right
CHICAGO -- Lyric Opera of Chicago unveiled a gripping new production of "Lulu" Nov. 7, its first outing with Alban Berg's masterwork since the company's debut production in 1987. At the heart of this production, by Scottish director Paul Curran, is a riveting performance by German coloratura soprano Marlis Petersen, who has made Lulu her signature role.

Based on two provocative plays by fin-de-siècle German playwright Frank Wedekind, "Lulu" is an operatic shocker on multiple levels. The beautiful title character exists in an amoral world teeming with sexual obsession, violence and greed. Berg's score, left unfinished at his death in 1935 and only completed in 1979, is densely layered and steeped in serialism.
Music Director Sir Andrew Davis and his cast focused more on the opera's sensual beauty than its shock value. Petersen possess a bright and steely soprano -- exactly the right instrument for a young woman who knows both her own mind and the minds of the men lusting after her. But she also found the singing line in the music's unpredictable, wide-leaping phrases, whether she was hurling taunts at the very proper Dr. Schoen or bantering with the elderly Schigolch.

Sir Andrew adores "Lulu," and his affection was evident in the clarity of texture and rich sound he drew from Lyric's orchestra. Individual moments of extraordinary beauty kept popping up -- bluesy woodwind solos, glittering, crashing piano chords -- without ever disrupting the lustrous orchestral fabric. Voices and orchestra were expertly balanced, a seamless blend full of individual color.

With sets and costumes by Kevin Knight and lighting by David Jacques, the production unfolds in Bauhaus-inspired, coolly luminous white interiors. We first see Lulu in a vast studio that would have been the envy of any struggling painter in Weimar Germany. As the dead husbands pile up, Lulu's surroundings morph into a sleek, 1930s salon. Its bookshelf-lined walls and chic furniture are bathed in light filtered through diaphanous, white drapes billowing from floor-to-ceiling windows. When her magic finally wanes, Lulu meets Jack the Ripper in a rubble-filled shelter whose naked walls evoke a long-abandoned, looted tenement.

Intriguing episodes of grainy, black-and-white Expressionist-style cinema mark the transitions between scenes. Created by John Boesche, they play out on vast scrims that serve as, by turns, an opaque movie screen or a transparent canvas filled with dissolving images that transport us to the space between the world of film and the live stage. For the extended filmed interlude in Act 2, Boesche shot the cast in the claustrophobic, tiled basement hallways of Lyric's home, the Civic Opera House, an iconic Art Deco skyscraper built in 1929.

Curran and his team made their Lyric debuts last season, creating a boldly striking fantasy world for "Die Frau ohne Schatten" starring Deborah Voigt. This season, in Berg's universe of worldly sophistication and graphic violence, they capture the restless atmosphere of a society teetering on the edge of collapse.

Slim yet curvy, Petersen looked fetching in her teddies, clinging evening gowns and bobbed hairdo. She is a gifted actress, and when she unfolded one svelte, black-stockinged leg, bringing it to rest on the shoulder of an abject suitor, we understood the power of sexual obsession. In the final scene, she was equally believable as a lost, waif-like prostitute.

With his lithe good looks and youthful tenor, William Burden brought depth to the Lulu-besotted, weak-willed Alwa. German bass-baritone Wolfgang Schoene commanded the stage in two roles: the impeccably tailored newspaper magnate Dr. Schoen, fatally in love with Lulu, and, in the final scene, the chilling Jack the Ripper. Jill Grove's rich mezzo, capable of sinister depths and seductive heights, was ideal for the lesbian Countess Geschwitz.

Among other featured roles, Thomas Hammons played Schigolch as a high-spirited, resilient old coot, and Scott Ramsay's Painter was a deft combination of romantic artiste and craven careerist. Re-appearing as the Sailor, he embodied menacing stupidity.

"Lulu' runs through Nov. 30 and uses the edition of the complete score that had its premiere at the Paris Opera in 1979.
Wynne Delacoma, Musical America
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