ARTS ETC: THE LORE OF DESIRE ; Everybody Loves Lulu - the Woman and the Opera. but What Is the Strange Secret That Draws Us Back to Berg's Masterpiece? Philip Hensher Unravels One of Music's Great Mysteries
Hensher, Philip, The Independent (London, England)
In a way, the story of Lulu, the tragic heroine of Frank Wedekind's two-part play, is rather a dangerous one for an opera. The fact that Alban Berg's Lulu - the opera he began in 1929 and left unfinished at his death in 1935 - works at all is a testament to the composer's mastery. It could so easily be completely ludicrous. It all stands or falls on a single convention: that Lulu herself is a woman of almost unbounded sexual desirability. Almost every character in the opera, staged in a new production by ENO this week, is prepared to destroy his or her own life in exchange for going to bed with her.
When this conceit is put in a novel, in Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson (1911), for instance, we accept it as a convention. But on the operatic stage? Everyone knows what sopranos are like, and if we've seen some Lulus of unforgettable sexual allure, like the tantalizingly remote caryatid of Christine Schaefer at Glyndebourne in 1996, we've also seen some where a certain suspension of disbelief has been necessary - better not to name names. The fact remains that Lulu always works, if the orchestra can play most of the notes - not something to be taken for granted in this terrifying score - and the singer playing Geschwitz can reliably hit the top A flat at the end. The reason that the gigantic, inhuman mechanism of the Berg Lulu is such an unforgettably convincing statement of obsession is that it exerts much the same power as it claims its heroine does over the other characters. Berg, here, put all his faith in his own powers of mesmerism, and brought off a gamble with what increasingly looks like the greatest opera of the 20th century. The characters are obsessed with Lulu: we are obsessed with Lulu: we know exactly what it feels like.
Arnold Bennett said that a great work of art has to contain at least one sympathetic character. He would scratch his head over the hold of Lulu and its unmitigatedly loathsome or contemptible cast of characters. The action, too, is gleefully preposterous and, in summary, appears like the cheapest and most sensational Victorian melodrama. A woman of low and mysterious origins marries well, on the basis of an overwhelming sexual presence. When her husband dies upon discovering her seducing a painter, she marries the painter. When the painter discovers that his sudden huge success was entirely due to the subsidy and influence of her oldest lover, Schoen, he cuts his throat. When Schoen discovers her entertaining an entire menage of new lovers, including his own son, he tries to force her to shoot herself, but she kills him instead. Fleeing to Paris with Schoen's son, her identity as a murderess is discovered and she escapes to London where, reduced to prostitution, she is finally murdered by Jack the Ripper. What possible merit, the audience may ask, can be found in so wild and implausible a farrago, where no possibility is ever acknowledged that a human being can be anything but a fool or a knave?
My first opportunity to get to know Lulu as a whole was foiled by a burst appendix. In 1979, 44 years after Berg's death, the complete opera was given its premiere by the Paris Opera under Pierre Boulez. For decades, the third act had been withheld by the composer's widow, Helene Berg; only with her death was it possible for Friedrich Cerha to realize the extremely full manuscript, and bring it to performance. It was probably the most important operatic premiere of the century, and the BBC announced a broadcast from Paris. I had other things on my mind; a badly burst appendix had led to a dangerous case of peritonitis, and after three weeks in a hospital bed, I shivered and trembled with emaciated delirium. The night of the Lulu premiere, so long anticipated, I marked with hours of babbling hallucinations. Lulu is all about the power of the body, and the attempts to discover the distinction between the body as an object, and as a container of the self. …