Cher Public

Snake charmer

lulu_amazonA long-awaited DVD from the Met documents one of the great “42nd Street” episodes in operatic history: on December 20, 1980, a largely unknown Julia Migenes (or Migenes-Johnson, as she was called in those days) stepped in on a few hours’ notice for an ailing Teresa Stratas as the anti-heroine of Berg’s Lulu. A prodigiously gifted and multifaceted artist, Migenes had already graced Broadway and German television prior to making her Met debut in 1979 as Jenny in Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

The conditions of this telecast were arduous for all concerned. Television director Brian Large recalled later: “There wasn’t a costume in the place that fitted her. It was an unnerving experience. But she was wonderful.” Migenes herself remembers getting the fateful “you’re going on” phone call from the Met after a long day of Christmas shopping. It is to her credit that she goes far beyond simply hitting her marks or avoiding a musical train wreck — reason enough for gratitude, considering the circumstances of the performance. In fact, Migenes delivers a poised, detailed and compelling portrayal that utterly belies the urgency of the situation.

Curiously, the cover and liner notes for this release shed no light on the harrowing nature of Migenes’ achievement. It should also be noted the DVD does not include the intermission features originally aired (these features were pre-recorded — and unavoidably awkward, owing to their focus on the diva in absentia).

It is impossible to catalogue the various interpretative facets Migenes brings to this archetypal character. The tough, street-wise survivor aspect is most prominent but this does not mean she lacks femininity or allure. Patrice Chéreau, stage director for the 1979 Paris premiere of Friedrich Cerha‘s completion of the score, once described Lulu as an alien force in her Teutonic world, an outsider, possibly a gypsy or Jewish. Migenes’ ethnic facial features certainly suggest this dimension of the role. More importantly, she has the figure and grace of a ballet dancer and exploits these features to her seductive advantage. Throughout, she sports a becoming wig of henna-colored tresses, sometimes elaborately styled. She wears the dizzying array of costumes required most beautifully and exudes a voluptuous sensuality that was probably not a strong suit of Stratas’ performance.

Vocally, Migenes is equal to the high-flying demands of the role. Her pungent lyric soprano is notable for its smoky, slightly mezzo-like timbre. There is the occasional hint of rawness on certain high notes but her confident musicianship sweeps all before it. She is fluent and persuasive in the numerous spoken passages. Her ability to execute the vocal writing lyrically and accurately is appreciable.

Perhaps her greatest accomplishment is the ability to serve as passive reflection of the death instinct that drives Lulu’s various victims, rather than the active agent of their destruction. Migenes can be vulnerable when needed but she never sentimentalizes the character or falls into easy choices simply to win the audience’s sympathy. She is content to embody the amoral animal that is Wedekind’s creation, without editorializing, and this provides maximum space for the other characters to play out their respective compulsions.

Migenes is surrounded by cast of genuine distinction, several of whom had participated in the earlier Chéreau production for Paris. Franz Mazura‘s fierce, almost ghoulish presence makes him equally menacing in the dual roles of Dr. Schoen and Jack the Ripper. Mazura’s unconventional bass-baritone has a uniquely spectral quality and his biting enunciation of the text allows for superb use of parlando. His scenes with Migenes crackle with a tension wholly appropriate to a showdown between two elemental forces.

Kenneth Riegel is reasonably attractive in both voice and appearance and he negotiates the difficult tessitura of Alwa’s part with greater success than most. Given these merits, it seems unkind to find fault but erotic chemistry is critical to the success of his scenes with Lulu and Riegel falls short in a role that cries out for a hybrid of Fritz Wunderlich and Jonas Kaufmann.

Evelyn Lear, a highly successful Lulu of an earlier generation, plays the role of Countess Geschwitz with patrician restraint and dignity. She is an incredibly beautiful woman, something her pageboy wig and mannish costumes do nothing to disguise (they do make her a dead ringer for Lee Grant, however). Her warm, luminous soprano is heard in good late estate. Lear is taxed by the sustained lines of Geschwitz’s final apostrophe (who isn’t?) but is otherwise affecting and moving.

Lenus Carlson‘s commanding, house-filling Animal Tamer gets the performance off to a splendid start and he is unflinchingly loathsome as the boorish Acrobat. Andrew Foldi‘s Schigolch has an almost Stanislavsky-like degree of nuance and he manages to be both touching and repulsive. Hilda Harris and Nico Castel are also deserving of praise in their triple assignments, as is Frank Little as the tortured Painter.

James Levine‘s conducting eschews the cerebral detachment of Pierre Boulez in favor of lush, complex orchestral textures. He amplifies the echoes of Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler and others in a way that clearly links Berg to the German Romantic tradition. The innovative use of instruments (vibraphone) and forms (fox trot, jazz) is not so much jarring here as it is beguiling. In short, Levine infuses the score with a humanity that provides fascinating counterpoint to the cruel, dehumanizing features of the story.

John Dexter‘s staging, with set and costume designs by Jocelyn Hebert, is one the most eloquent productions ever to grace the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. All of the action is contained on box-like wagons that roll on and off effortlessly throughout the performance. They contain a dazzling series of period designs, ranging from heavy Victorian to Mucha-like Art Nouveau, and each serves as a cage wherein the various animal metaphors of the Prologue are given expression by the players. There are many unforgettable images but none more so than the Painter’s apartment, with Lulu in a snake-like dressing gown slithering through a Jugendstil jungle of green carpets and dark wooden furniture. Dexter integrates the disparate elements of Feydeau-like farce, Theatre of the Absurd and nightmarish Expressionism into a powerful whole.

In conclusion, this DVD documents both an extraordinary performer and production. Highly recommended.