Alban Berg’s opera “Lulu” was playing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York last week. This is the review in the New York Times: A Sensuous Opera Undeterred by Vastness The critic, Bernard Holland, quite clearly doesn’t like “Lulu,” but can’t quite bring himself to say it in the review, so he concentrates on how many other people must not like “Lulu.” The ongoing theme of the review is the sparse crowd at the season opener performance. It’s the oldest critical trick in the book–you can’t think of anything else to say, so you write about the crowd, the scenery and the costumes.
For Christine Schaefer, the brilliant German soprano singing the title role, he reserves his best backhanded compliment: “Not many sopranos are musician enough to negotiate Berg’s 12-tone twists and turns. Ms. Schaefer can hit the notes, and she looks good, too. It would be boorish to ask for more.” Excuse me? Mr. Holland has missed the point of “Lulu” the opera and Lulu the character. She is the catalyst of the action, she is the focal point of the opera, but she is not a vamp or a sex goddess. Having seen Christine Schaefer in the role (last season at the Met), she is a very neutral actress. The action takes place around her. She doesn’t chew the scenery in the way the Teresa Stratas did when she played the role. This is the essence of Lulu–men kill themselves for her, but she never pretends to be anything other than what she is. Schaefer sings the music as if it were Mozart or Bach; her musicianship is astounding. It’s only in comparing the efforts of other singers that you understand how easy she makes it sound. It’s hard to remember that fifty years ago, “Lulu” was considered almost unsingable.
Why is it that the Met hires over-the-hill singers for the role of Countess Geschwitz? Are they the only ones who will sing the music? In this case, it’s Hanna Schwarz. She was a fine singer, but now needs to bow out–she can barely hit the notes at the end of the opera (granted, they’re high). Why not a sexy young mezzo like Jennifer Larmore?
There is also a factual error. Mr. Holland refers to the “first performance of ‘Lulu’ in 1980.” Indeed, the first performance of the three-act completed version was performed in 1980, but I witnessed the first performance of “Lulu” at the Met in 1977 in the unfinished two-act version, with James Levine conducting and Carole Farley in the title role. It was my first trip ever to New York City, so I have an indelible memory of the trip and the performance.