At the end of this past October, the Metropolitan Opera released a package of both Blu-ray and DVD recordings of the November 21, 2015 transmission of The Met: Live in HD. The opera broadcast to selected movie theaters on that date was the new production of Alban Berg’s Lulu, with both stage direction and visual design conceived by South African visual artist William Kentridge. By the time of that release, I had already experienced what I felt was a representative taste of Kentridge’s work, since in the previous March the San Francisco Opera had launched its SF Opera Lab series of programs with the West Coast production premiere of a project named in the program book “Winterreise by Franz Schubert.” At that time I suggested that this title was “a bit of a misrepresentation,” since Kentridge’s work was so overwhelmingly conceived that neither Schubert’s music nor its interpretation by German baritone Matthias Goerne could claim “foreground attention.”
It was thus no surprise to discover that both Berg’s music and the efforts of all of the contributing vocalists were similarly overwhelmed by Kentridge’s creations, which involved richly content-laden projections and highly unconventional approaches to both costumes and sets (as well as two mimed roles that had absolutely nothing to do with the libretto). Unfortunately, more often than not, all of that media overkill tended to impede the ability to follow the narrative by anyone not already familiar with either the opera or the two plays by Frank Wedekind, Erdgeist (earth spirit) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s box), that Berg himself adapted to create the opera’s libretto. Furthermore, distraction from that narrative entailed distraction from the many ingenious techniques that Berg engaged to realize that narrative through music, not to mention the riveting performance techniques of all the participating vocalists, particularly soprano Marlis Petersen taking on the many coloratura demands of the title role. Ultimately, the result is a video product that serves up a highly imaginative treatment of just about every dimension of Wedekind’s vulgarity that could not care less about either the score or those who labored both mightily and successfully to give it the sort of account that it observed.
Thus, while conductor Lothar Koenigs pulled off an account of Berg’s score that holds its own against many of the audio and video recordings that have already been released, the fact is that those who are as interested in that score as in its interpretation on stage will be much better served by the DVD taken from the 1980 Live from the Met telecast. This was the first commercial release of a Lulu recording conducted by James Levine, and Levine was definitely on top of every detail in the score from beginning to end. Staging was provided by John Dexter, who was more concerned with being true to Berg’s vision than with upstaging that “original intent.” Granted, many were unsatisfied with that performance, since Julia Migenes had to fill in for an ailing Teresa Stratas, who had sung in the 1979 premiere of the full three-act version of the opera when Pierre Boulez conducted it on February 24, 1979. Unfortunately, the staging for that production was by Patrice Chéreau, who was about as far from Dexter’s “original intent” aesthetic as could be imagined. (Probably even further than Kentridge.) If Migenes did not quite rise to Stratas’ heights, the overall impact of Dexter’s staging did not suffer, which is why those more interested in Berg than in Kentridge will definitely prefer the earlier Met recording.