lulu_met“I just saw a woman upstairs,” said poet/translator Richard Howard, “wearing a very large pair of sunglasses that made her look for all the world like a great dragonfly.”

“Upstairs” was the balcony at the Met; at the time, I was taking Howard’s lecture on the subject of frivolity in literature, and so when I spotted him at the Lulu intermission I went up to say hi and grin vapidly, which is what I tend to do when I run into a dazzlingly smart person.

“And as she was sort of flitting about,” he continued, “she saw me standing there, just beaming, and she came up to me and said, ‘You certainly look as if you’re enjoying yourself!’ I had to confess that I was, I was enjoying it tremendously, and she said, ‘Well I’m not. I’m leaving.'”

He told this story again to our class the next day, apropos I think of Zuleika Dobson, with the moral lesson that even though it was, in his estimation, a perfect novel, he could understand that some of us might not enjoy it—that there are works of art, like Lulu, that just aren’t for everybody. If we can appreciate them, our lives will be so much the richer, but there will always be those who walk in expecting something different, and walk out very disappointed, and that doesn’t mean they’re idiots or philistines.

After all, it was my first time seeing Lulu onstage, and it certainly wasn’t what I had expected either, even though I’d listened to my recording (Boulez/Stratas) many, many times. I had always imagined Lulu’s story as that of a scheming villainess, fucking and manipulating her way to the top of the social ladder, then being crushed down again by a brutal poetic justice.

Her famous Act II Lied, in which she claims that the men she’s destroyed have really only destroyed themselves, was an especially cruel boast, like the other conversational hand-grenades she daintily tosses to her admirers: “I poisoned your mother,” she tells her stepson in an intimate moment earlier in that act; “Isn’t this the sofa where your father bled to death?” she asks him when they embrace again at the end of it. What a monster, to taunt her victims so mercilessly!

The Lulu I imagined, a visceral shocker replete with gunplay, prostitution, serial killer, and of course the Diseased Lesbian Underwear Switcheroo that is literally the turning-point of the opera (and possibly the most sordid plot device in opera history?), was a grand and savage affair indeed—a slam-bang number, like Wozzeck, but bigger and filthier.

But this was a pleasant surprise. The Lulu I saw onstage was very different: she really believed that her victims had been willing sacrifices, and what’s more, she was right. She wasn’t taunting her victims, she was being honest—she was being natural, a beast, just like the Ringmaster tells us she is in the opening prologue. “She’s innocent!” cries one of her lovers (a schoolboy) after she’s shot her husband, and of course it’s an ironic joke at the schoolboy’s expense, but in a way she is: innocent as a poisonous snake. Her fall is as undeserved as her rise.

Much of the credit for changing my mind about Lulu (and Lulu) belongs to Christine Schäfer, who sang the role that night, and on the new recording—presently under review, although I’ve certainly taken my time getting around to it, haven’t I—which was taped during the same run. Unfortunately, these discs are strictly audio, so you can’t see her girlish looks and presence, but you can hear her eerily pure vocal performance.

To be honest, her singing often leaves me a bit ambivalent, although I have some difficulty articulating why that is. It could be that she doesn’t have an especially warm or bright instrument (there’s a lot of flute, not a lot of trumpet, in her timbre), but sometimes she seems to think she does, eschewing the snappy vibrato or phrasing that another singer might use to liven up the sound of such an airy voice. Am I making sense? I know there are people reading this who know a lot more about these things than I do, so I’ll just shut up now.

But my point is that Schäfer doesn’t go the expected route here—vamping’ it up—but instead plays Lulu almost “like a madonna,” as Frank Wedekind asked of his wife when she originated the role in his plays. Her glassy voice seems as much a cipher to the listener as Lulu herself is to her admirers.

Credit is also due, of course, to James Levine, who may be the real star of this set. It was produced in his honor, right? He does supply the requisite shocks, certainly—the death of Lulu is about as wrenching here as you can imagine—but Berg’s score is also surprisingly elegant, and impossibly complex.

Yes, I know that this is really not the place to launch into a defense of 12-tone music, but there’s no better argument for it than the absurdly overdetermined score of Berg’s Lulu. He uses an array of serial tricks that have a real, audible impact. His main characters have their own, closely related, 12-tone rows, most of which can be divided neatly into a set of 6 “white keys” and then a set of all 5 “black keys” plus one—so he’s got the tonal implications of the diatonic scale right under his fingers if he wants them.

Then he arranges these rows to achieve readily audible, characteristic gestures: the lesbian Countess, for instance, has her music underscored by the queer droning of open fifths; the brutal Athlete is frequently introduced by the mashing of two clusters on the piano, one all seven white keys and one all five black keys.

And this isn’t even getting into the piece’s taut rhythmic organization. I never noticed before that the cadence of Lulu’s four spoken (screamed) “NO”s, just before her offstage evisceration, becomes the rhythm of the dark fanfare that recurs constantly throughout the piece, but I’ll never not notice it again.

So, who you gonna call when you need a lush, lyrical orchestral sound, combined with meticulous modernistic precision? The Man With the Jewfro, that’s who. The Met Orchestra sounds terrific, I want to say “flawless,” and perhaps more importantly the drama races ahead and lingers in all the right places.

The supporting cast of Lulu’s admirers puts in virtuoso performances: James Courtney broods superbly as Lulu’s final husband, the doomed Dr. Schön (and as Jack the Ripper, in a dual role); Hanna Schwarz‘s unlovely, mannish, but heart-tuggingly sympathetic mezzo is ideal for the butch and tragic Countess. David Kuebler produces a brilliant sound in the punishing tessitura of Schön’s son Alwa, although the lucid orchestral doubling of his big solos make it painfully clear that he subscribes somewhat to the old tenor adage, “It’s better to be sharp than to be out of tune.”

As an all-around desert island set, Boulez’s recording probably comes out on top, but a collector of Lulus ought to find this a delicious second recording—and honestly, if you’re shelling out for James Levine: Celebrating 40 Years at the Met – CD Box Set and ain’t a huge Berg fan (that’s okay! I forgive you! See paragraph 2!), you can probably be satisfied with this one ’til the end of your days. I give it twelve tones up.