Moving pictures are the artist William Kentridge’s stock in trade. Not film, not background, but strong black-and-white images that are too immediate, too peripatetic, to allow the eye to relax. In live theater, this is a complicated thing, as attention flicks back and forth from performers to image, ear to eye. The result is stimulating, threatening, exhausting and therefore entirely appropriate to Alban Berg’s masterful opera “Lulu,” which opened in a new Kentridge production at the Metropolitan Opera on Thursday night. “Lulu” will never be a crowd-pleaser, but what happened on the Met stage on Thursday was an even rarer commodity in many opera houses: serious art, on many levels.
The production was to have united Kentridge, a heavy hitter in the world of visual arts who has long experimented with using his signature charcoal-drawing-based projections in theater and opera (including the Met’s 2010 production of Shostakovich’s “The Nose”), with James Levine, the Met’s music director, long beloved and now frail, for whom Berg is a passion and a specialty. Last month, however, it was announced that Levine was withdrawing in order to concentrate on Wagner’s “Tannhäuser,” the other production he conducted this fall. The announcement left many scratching their heads, but indubitably left the “Lulu” field to Kentridge; the podium to the German conductor Lothar Koenigs, who found plenty of beauty amid the thorns of this challenging and rich score through a four-hour evening; and the star role to the German soprano Marlis Petersen, who was dazzling in what she has said will be her final turn in this dauntingly difficult part.
Kentridge’s “The Nose” suffered from a surfeit of visual busy-ness, and in Act I “Lulu” was threatened with a similar fate, as Kentridge and his team responded to the self-referentiality of the setting — an artist’s studio — with a barrage of images that blanketed the entire set and threatened to overwhelm the action. On one side of the stage there was a piano with a silent player whose pantomimed gestures turned out to accompany the entire evening (one of the production’s less inspired ideas); in the middle, drawings of Lulu in various poses in a blocky, expressionist style succeeded one another in quick succession as the Painter (Paul Groves) drew her, from life, at the other side of the stage.
The images were certainly keyed to the music; their constant changing reflected the movements of a dense, atonal score that never quite comes to rest on any one key or melody before shifting to another motif. But the layers of visual reference alone — images on a newsprint collage, a sequence of Rorschach-like ink blots interspersed with faces of people that were almost familiar — were almost too much to process. Mercifully, in Act II, the pace of the images began to slow down and allow for more focus on the action. (The score calls for a film in Act II, illustrating some of the stages between Lulu’s rise and fall — arrest, trial, illness; Kentridge didn’t give the projections at this juncture any special emphasis, but it made a difference that the music offered them a channel in which to flow.
“Lulu” is the story of a beautiful and amoral woman, irresistible to men and women alike, and the passions she arouses and the deaths she occasions, culminating finally in her own. The Met surrounded Petersen with a generally good cast, many playing multiple roles: the light-grained bass-baritone Johan Reuter as Dr. Schön, the man who discovered the young Lulu and now cannot escape her, bristling with frustration and rage at his own inability to break away; the veteran Franz Grundheber in a turn as Schigolch, the panhandler who sometimes claims to be Lulu’s father; Martin Winkler with gorgeously clear diction as the Animal Tamer and an adequate voice as the Acrobat; Elizabeth DeShong convincing as a besotted schoolboy with a clear mezzo voice. In the small roles of the Theater Manager and Banker, Julian Close made a notable Met debut, showing a strong dark voice; Daniel Brenna, the American heldentenor, was slightly pale as Dr. Schön’s son Alwa.
The standouts were the women. Susan Graham seems to be singing better than ever these days; as the Countess Geschwitz, a lesbian woman infatuated with Lulu, she distinguished herself with her burnished warm sound from the very first notes. And Petersen was remarkable:a true singing actress who made this high-lying part sound almost effortless.
It’s a grim night. At the end of the opera, in the third act (which wasn’t performed until the late 1970s, after Berg’s widow’s death), Lulu has become a prostitute, with a few of her die-hard admirers clinging to her as she brings home one man after another. Her last client is Jack the Ripper (Reuter), who dispatches both her and the Countess Geschwitz, thereby bringing the cycle of death to a close — or opening it anew.