The score to Alan Berg's Lulu remains as elusive as the femme fatale herself.
Berg left the third act unfinished upon his death in 1935 after Nazi politics thwarted staging the work. He had devised a concert suite that was conducted by Erich Kleiber in Berlin the previous year.
Zurich Opera premiered an incomplete version of the opera in 1937, but it was not until 1979 that a reconstruction by Friedrich Cerha allowed for a full staging of the work in Paris.
A new version of the third act by Eberhard Kloke was unveiled in Copenhagen two seasons ago, yet Lulu has not been put to rest.
As the opening to this year's "Festtage" at the Staatsoper, Music Director Daniel Barenboim commissioned the conductor and composer, David Robert Coleman, to rework the final act for a premiere production by Andrea Breth, whose cuts to the opera made it legally impossible to use the Cerha reconstruction, which remains standard.
Breth excludes the Paris salon scene for her own dramaturgical purposes, instead skipping to the final London scene. She also cuts the animal tamer's prologue, which is set to 85 bars of musical material.
The bold artistic decision to add a cryptic text by Kierkegaard opened the production, seen at its March 31 premiere, on an inauspicious note as the actor Wolfgang Hübsch lay on his back in the likes of a beached whale at the front of the stage. The amplified recording of a woman's blood-curdling scream that ushered in the orchestra and returned at the end of the opera was an equally disturbing touch, most of all because Berg's opera is unsettling enough without such kitschy special effects.
Breth, who also staged a new Wozzeck for the Staatsoper last season, otherwise confines the plot line to a derelict warehouse with a pile of rusty cars on one side (sets designed by Erich Wonder). Most of the action takes place within an open, maze-like structure of metal rods, providing the audience with little context for the already estranged interactions between Berg's characters.
Lulu glitters in a silver sequin dress (costumes by Moidele Bickel) while more than one doppelganger appears haphazardly the background. At one point, a blond vixen is placed inside a trash bag and dumped from a wheelbarrow. The protagonist herself emerges armed with a crowbar, pressing down on Dr. Schön's neck at the end of the first act as if straight out of a cheap Hollywood movie ("Now-comes-the execution...").
The staging also veers toward the tirelessly abstract. When the painter takes his life in the first act after the taunting of Dr. Schön, he falls onto a pile of skinheads who have emerged as alter-egos to console him (no screams offstage when you expect to hear them). In the opening scene of the second act, the Countess sits in a dentist's chair and wraps her face in gauze while the others sing from within one of the beat-up abandoned cars—apparently the crash is imminent.
Berg's call for a film interlude to illustrate Lulu's imprisonment and liberation is replaced by a barely perceptible projection of her eyes onto the automobiles, and the opera ends in flames when Jack the Ripper pours gasoline over the anti-heroine, now a desperate prostitute, and hands her a match.
Despite the convoluted happenings onstage, the cast dispatched itself elegantly.
Mojca Erdmann was a lithe, kittenish Lulu, wielding an immaculate bell-like timbre and flexible coloratura throughout the role's dauntingly high range. Her performance was all the more impressive given that she was required to sing in a variety of compromising positions, at one point being draped over a man's shoulder.
Deborah Polaski was a commanding, rich-voiced Countess as she chased after Lulu, and Michael Volle brought a barrel-like, appropriately gruff baritone to the bullish Dr. Schön and Jack the Ripper.
Stephan Rügamer conveyed the angst of the painter against the emotionally vapid set and made a striking cameo appearance as the black-faced Negro with fluid dance movements in the third act. The tenor, Thomas Piffka, made for a clear-voiced Alwa, the enigmatic son of Dr. Schön, and Georg Nigl brought a dramatically nuanced bass to the role of the Athlete, showing equal stamina as he jumped around boxing in the background.
Anna Lapkovskaja was vocally elegant as the theater dresser and gymnast, her incessant cabaret-style moves aside. Jürgen Linn rounded out the cast well as the asthmatic Schigolch (who may also be Lulu's father).
Barenboim, conducting Lulu for the first time, led the Staatskapelle in a precise yet expressive account that breathed with the hysteria of Berg's twelve-tone score. His generous phrasing managed to stylishly incorporate Coleman's third act, which thins out the textures to a chamber orchestra including marimba, steel drums and cowbells as well as banjo (lifted from the jazz band in Berg's first act).
The contemporary sound world found better resonance with the set's metallic tones than anywhere else in the original score, yet this musical specimen—skillfully wrought as it is—may remain inextricably linked to Breth's, and not Coleman's, vision.
"Those new despots of the theatrical art...the stage producers," wrote Schönberg in 1965. Perhaps it would make sense to respect what Berg did leave behind.
The production runs through April 14th.