I have been watching Barbara Hannigan’s one-of-a-kind interpretation of Lulu in Berg’s opera from a production at La Monnaie, streamed online. As far as I can tell it will be available until the 28th of this month. Enjoy it while you can.
Start with the role, one of the most challenging in the repertoire. It’s harder to learn than a tonal role such as Gilda or Violetta. Yet after mastering its quirky tonalities, one is rewarded by the knowledge that one can’t expect to do it nearly as often as of the Verdi heroines.
Hannigan does much more than merely sing the part. I had to check her bio, wondering if she studied ballet at one time: because she spends a good portion of the role impersonating a dancer.
There are oddities to the production, directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski, sets & costumes designed by Malgorzata Szczesniak, video by Denis Guéguin and conducting by Paul Daniel. The best analogy I can think of will sound curious, to be sure; but this Lulu reminds me of a modernist Opera Atelier: because of course OA put ballet into all sorts of places where we don’t expect it.
Warlikowski brings ballet into Berg’s dark tale, with mixed results. The black swan that already hit us over the head in Darren Aronofsky’s film of the same name is back, pretentious as ever in this opera. But the swan doesn’t really get in the way.
Hannigan in the title role assumes a physicality I’ve never seen in an opera before. Have you ever tried to sing & move at the same time? As a participant in a workshop a few years ago, where we tried to roll around, even tumble, while singing, I recognize how hard it is, even if you’re not also singing a really difficult role. Barbara Hannigan seems to have such techniques at her disposal. At times she’s rolling around the stage as if it were a porn movie, not an opera, all the while singing Berg’s torturous lines. At other times she walks or struts or slouches or stumbles, her physicality sufficiently eloquent for a mime role.
You might be discouraged if you don’t know Berg’s opera, based on two plays by Frank Wedekind. You can read more about the opera here. The production updates aspects of the opera. For example, the painter is now a photographer, Lulu’s portrait now a photograph. The “dear John” letter Dr Schön writes to his fiancée, dictated by Lulu, is now an email through an iphone, dictated while Lulu has Dr Schön’s head firmly locked between her legs. At no time was there any indication that all this physicality prevented Hannigan from sounding –and looking—amazing.
I know I am Mr Positive, who never reports a bad performance. But I have to say that Barbara Hannigan’s performance is the single most impressive portrayal I’ve ever seen, when you include the point shoes, the several different stages she takes Lulu through, the vocalism, the physicality. You really should have a look.
I came to this production with a question in my head, one that pales beside Hannigan’s heroics. I was thinking about modernism, and whether it’s a style that can now be pronounced dead, with the passing of Hans Werne Henze and Elliot Carter in the same month. I always found dissonance challenging, having a strong personal bias towards tonal music. I am not saying I don’t like new music –far from it—but felt that the extreme exponents of the modernist style such as Henze were a bit too brave for me, taking the music beyond beauty into something else. I find Berg stunningly beautiful.
It occurs to me that in every century with every style, that there are –pardon my choice of words—winners & losers. Some composers fall by the wayside in each century while a few manage to keep our attention. Perhaps we can say the same about modernist music, where the operas of Berg have been the strongest advocates for a style that at one time was the pre-eminent voice of serious music, the epitome of what one would learn in the conservatory & play in the concert halls & opera houses.
Wozzeck is regularly performed, and deserving of revival, currently newsworthy for a concert version, and one of the three operas James Levine wants to conduct next season when he’s back with the Metropolitan Opera.
Lulu is also worth the effort, the music immortal, the subject matter so primal as to invite probing interpretations such as Warlikowski’s quirky reading.
There are several standout performances alongside Hannigan. Pavlo Hunka, familiar to Toronto audiences, is solid as Schigolch, Natascha Petrinsky an especially vulnerable Countess Geschwitz, and Dietrich Henschel echoing Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with his beautiful baritone.