By Alban Berg
Presented by San Francisco Opera
At the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA
Conducted by Stefan Lano
Directed by Lotfi Mansouri

Reviewed by Judy Richter

San Francisco Opera's summer Femmes Fatales Festival presents a fascinating trio of women for whom men have an obsessive, often fatal attraction. Of the three -- Carmen in Bizet's Carmen, Poppea in Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea and Lulu in Alban Berg's Lulu -- only Poppea survives. Carmen seemingly could escape death, but instead yields to what she sees as her fate. Lulu, too, seems destined for an unhappy demise, but in Lulu she might not have as much control as her two SFO sisters.

In Berg's libretto, based on two Frank Wedekind plays, Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box, the amoral Lulu is a victim of her own nature -- a woman who is solely defined by men, named by them and almost totally dependent upon them for protection. Although she is the object of their adoration, she's incapable of truly loving any of them. In fact, she seems indifferent save for what they can do for her. SFO General Director Lotfi Mansouri's production stresses these aspects of her character, making for an intriguing evening of music-theater.

Soprano Eilana Lappalainen's performance supports this concept of Lulu. Sporting a Jean Harlow-like wig and wearing Bob Mackie's alluring costumes, she embodies the child-woman who's fully aware of her powers but perhaps unaware or unheeding of their destructiveness and probably powerless to be any different than she is. Of all the men who try to possess her, she seems to care for only two: Dr. Schön, her longtime protector; and Schigolch, the old man who serves as a father figure to her and the only man she's willing to help.

There are two genuinely decent people in her life: Alwa, Schön's son, who has loved her since childhood; and Countess Geschwitz, a lesbian who risks her life for Lulu's sake yet receives only shabby treatment in return. Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade is a magnificent Geschwitz. Eschewing any mannish mannerisms, she makes the countess a noble, sympathetic character. Von Stade's legendary voice maintains its luster, its mesmerizing musicality.

Although no one else in the cast has her star power, everyone performs well. Lappalainen handles her vocally and dramatically taxing role with skill. Although her singing may not be as spectacular as that of her SFO predecessor, Ann Panagulias, who created such a sensation in Mansouri's 1989 production, her singing seems more effortless. Hence Lappalainen seems freer to concentrate on dramatic subtleties.

Baritone Tom Fox as Schön, tenor Christopher Lincoln as Alwa and bass Franz Mazura as Schigolch all create strong portraits of their characters, as does baritone David Okerlund as the Acrobat, one of Lulu's less scrupulous admirers. Okerlund also is an imposing Animal Trainer as he introduces the characters and compares them to animals in a circus.

Günther Schneider-Siemssen's set design reinforces the circus atmosphere with its ropes and cages. Costumes by the aforementioned Mackie also make a strong contribution, along with Michael Whitfield's lighting design. Conductor Stefan Lano, in his SFO debut, skillfully guides the orchestra and singers through Berg's complex, 12-note, atonal score, helping the audience to appreciate the work's artistry.

Special mention goes to the filmed interlude between the two scenes of Act 2. Depicting the events that follow Lulu's killing Schön, it is a virtual reality production produced and directed by Linda Schaller and devised by Tim Schaller in association with a team of artists. It, too, enhances the production.

For more information, see the San Francisco Opera home page.

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Monday, 08-Dec-2003 21:44:40 PST