Far from the monstrous doll figure of Lulus past and present, Marlis Petersen gave the Met audience a Lulu they could believe in and recognise: a sharp and self-possessed woman in a man’s world, not alienated from her surroundings but bored by them. Setting her apart from some otherwise notable contemporary rivals in the role is a vocal range fully integrated across its demanding three-octave tessitura, yielding rather than piercing even while laughing at Geschwitz’s devotion to her over the top of the ensemble din in the Paris Scene of the third act, and bringing no less warmth to the Sprechgesang scene with Paul Groves’s touchingly sung Painter.
Chic costumes may underplay the opera’s sleaze and squalor but they also complement the kind of finely honed movement and timing – almost too perfect for their own good – familiar from trend-setting black comedies such as Seinfeld and Mad Men. It is Don and Betty Draper, not Wotan and Fricka, who come to mind in the Lulu-Dr Schön two-hander which opens Act 2, set in a reassuringly expensive, generically acculturated apartment. Fidelity comes in many disguises: William Kentridge and his singers are attentive to how Dr Schön would look and sound as a media baron and tabloid editor, compared with his son the indulged composer, who convincingly resembles Berg himself.
Close-ups limit the degree to which the trademark projections of the William Kentridge/Catherine Meyburgh team offer more than expressionist sketch backdrops. Another sacrificial victim of an ambitious staging to the demands of the screen is the central character’s Louise Brooks-styled alter ego at the side of the stage, glimpsed in periodic cutaways.
All the principals are strongly cast. There is as much frisson to Susan Graham’s voluptuously sung Countess Geschwitz as there is to Johan Reuter’s Dr Schön/Jack the Ripper, oozing power and entitlement from every phrase. Franz Grundheber’s Schigolch is a more nuanced and prepossessing figure than in either the under-directed Salzburg Festival staging (EuroArts, A/12) or Olivier Py’s Liceu production (DG, 2/12), which suffers from the opposite problem.
Thanks to James Levine’s advocacy over more than 30 years, the score is bedded in at the Met as in no other international house. Lothar Koenigs harnesses such virtuoso familiarity to advantage with pacy and incisive conducting. Lulu may be the only character without a musical motif of her own, but after the opera’s most arid stretch – at least Berg’s completed portion of it – we hear the moment of her return from incarceration thanks to the warmth rippling and swelling through the orchestra.
Conducting, singing, direction: they’re all of a piece, working to domesticate Berg’s feral beast, and making it the funniest, least absurd and most approachable Lulu on film. Readers after something more cruel and dirty have plenty of other options though not yet, frustratingly, the film of Patrice Chéreau’s 1979 premiere production of Cerha’s completion for the Paris Opera.