Notes and Editorial Reviews
Alban Berg’s second opera Lulu was premiered in 1937 in Zurich, incomplete, because Berg had died unexpectedly during the composition process. The scandalous story of Lulu was taken from two dramas by Frank Wedekind, “Die Büchse der Pandora” and “Der Erdgeist”, which greatly inspired Berg in his adaptation of the libretto. Due to the controversial material and the exceedingly difficult vocal parts Lulu was not performed regularly for a long time – and the Austrian premiere took place 25 years after the world premiere.
Evelyn Lear, already then a renowned star, gives a breathtaking performance of Lulu – her contemporary colleague Elisabeth Schwarzkopf called Lear’s performance in Vienna “one of the supreme achievements
of the operatic stage anywhere in the world”. At her side the German baritone Paul Schöffler and heroic tenor Rudolf Schock give highly appraised interpretations of Dr. Schön and his son Alwa.
Conducting this Austrian premiere is the distinguished maestro Karl Böhm. The young Otto Schenk took over not only the stage, but also the TV direction for this program.
(Unfinished version in 2 Acts)
Lulu – Evelyn Lear
Dr. Schön – Paul Schöffler
Alwa – Rudolf Schock
Der Medizinalrat – Guido Wieland
Der Maler – Kurt Equiluz
Rodrigo – Hans Braun
Schigolch – Josef Knapp
Gräfin Geschwitz – Gisela Litz
Vienna Symphony Orchestra
Karl Böhm, conductor
Otto Schenk, stage director
Caspar Neher, stage designer
Hill Reihs-Gromes, costume designer
Arthur Zelnicek, lighting designer
Austrian premiere. Recorded live from the Theater an der Wien, Vienna, 1962
Picture format: NTSC 4:3 B/W
Sound format: PCM Mono
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, Italian
Running time: 135 mins
No. of DVDs: 1 (DVD 9)
R E V I E W:
BERG Lulu • Karl Böhm, cond; Evelyn Lear (Lulu); Paul Schöffler (Dr. Schön); Rudolf Schock (Alwa); Guido Wieland (Doctor); Kurt Equiluz (Painter); Hans Braun (Rodrigo); Josef Knapp (Schigolch); Gisela Litz (Countess Geschwitz); Vienna SO • ARTHAUS 101687, mono (DVD: 135:00) Live: Vienna 6/9/1962
This historic document preserves a moment in time, the surprise hit of the 1962 Vienna Opera season, a surprise because few people thought that Berg’s difficult music would sell to the public. It’s possible that this was the first production of Lulu since the original staging at Zurich in 1937—I’ve been unable to find online any other performance of the work in between—but it was most certainly its Vienna premiere. As it turned out, the public was ready for something challenging and different, and so they filled the house. A glance at the cast gives one clue: tenor Rudolf Schock, a local favorite normally associated with the standard German and Italian lyric- tenor repertoire, makes a surprise appearance here as Alwa. Yet the real star of the show, and possibly the reason people were mesmerized by it and kept coming to see it, is Evelyn Lear as Lulu. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, of all people, praised Lear’s performance as one of the most extraordinary she had ever seen on an opera stage. It is that good.
Otto Schenk directed not only the stage production but also the televised one, a rare gesture in those days. The (black-and-white) picture has been digitally sharpened, so I’m sure it’s better than what Austrians saw on their TV screens, but the overall production seems to have been rather dark, probably to match the story. In Schenk’s conception, Lulu comes across for the most part as a grinning bimbo, someone who knows the power she has over men and constantly wears a smile to mask the fact that she knows how to get what she wants. This is considerably different from the way that American actress Louise Brooks played the character in Pabst’s famous silent film version of Pandora’s Box, one of the two plays that Lulu is based on; but there is considerably more going on in Lulu than in Pandora’s Box, thus the character is presented differently. In some modern productions I’ve seen, Lulu is presented as being so wanton as to be a whore in all ways, except in asking for money, almost from the very start.
With her mask of a frozen smile in place, Lear performs her role with a catlike grace, a kittenish personality, and a calculating seductiveness that comes across as sincere when it isn’t even close to that. It’s an interesting way of doing the character, and her voice is simply phenomenal: a true lyric soprano with an extended top range, not the usual soprano leggieros who sing the role nowadays (Christine Schäfer and Patricia Petibon among others). And her voice never flags, flinches, or sounds pinched, even in those notes above a C.
It’s also interesting to see Kurt Equiluz, a tenor who later became famous for singing Mozart and early music (the latter often conducted by Harnoncourt) in a stage role. He’s a fine actor, playing the painter as passionate and a bit overwrought emotionally about both his work and Lulu. By contrast Paul Schöffler, as Dr. Schön, comes across as laconic and almost chronically depressed, wondering why he has put up with this woman for so long yet deciding to marry her almost against his will, hoping he will keep her from ruining other lives. Of course, he fails in that attempt.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a bit of surprise casting in using Schock as Alwa. Having never seen any of his films, I was pleasantly surprised at what a good actor he was. Under Schenk’s direction, Alwa comes across as far more gentlemanly than I am used to in modern productions—many of them present him as someone who is seething with lust for Lulu from the very start, and who almost can’t wait for his father to be shot so he can have his chance with her. Schock almost presents him as a real old-fashioned Viennese gentleman—probably closer to his real personality—but I find that the restraint works very well in context. There are two other surprises in the cast, too: Hilde Konetzni, who sang Sieglinde under Furtwängler at La Scala a dozen years earlier, in the bit part as the old theater-dresser, and Hans Braun, a former star baritone of the early 1950s, in the role of the athlete Rodrigo.
Yet aside from Lear, whose performance is still mind-boggling to hear and behold, the biggest reason to own this DVD is to hear—and see—how Karl Böhm was able to pull the disparate threads of Berg’s score together, phrase it as if it were Richard Strauss, and keep the whole thing flowing with astonishing grace and ease. His performance is the other tour de force in this production.
Of course, this is the “old” version of Lulu, before Berg’s widow died and act 3, which existed complete in piano-vocal score and with several sections fully scored by Berg before he died (the first 268 bars, the instrumental interlude, and the finale of the opera, beginning with the monologue by Countess Geschwitz), was finally allowed to be completed by Berg’s estate. Schenk’s solution, like most of those before 1979, was to use some of the scored instrumental music that was part of the Lulu Suite as Lulu silently invites the dark stranger (who turns out to be Jack the Ripper) to turn a trick with her, then splicing in the Countess’s final lines. It’s certainly not as full a panorama as the completed act 3, but it suffices to show how low Lulu has sunk. When Böhm finally got around to recording Lulu in 1968, he adopted the more common practice prescribed by Berg’s widow, which was to play the Variations and Adagio from the Lulu Suite, without singers. This solution works much better.
What concerned me more was that this production—like most I have seen—eliminates the silent film footage that is supposed to be inserted after Lulu’s arrest. The original footage, shot by director Heinz Ruckert to Berg’s exacting specifications, shows Lulu’s trial, incarceration and eventual escape to freedom due to the cunning of Countess Geschwitz. Of course, some of this is explained in the text when Alwa asks Lulu how she and the Countess managed to contract cholera on exactly the same day and the latter explains both that and her escape, but one would think with the means available to stage directors, not only nowadays but even back in 1962, this footage would have been shot anew for this production. It is a small blemish, however, on an extraordinary time capsule. Even with this flaw and the missing act 3 scenes, this is still one of the best productions of Lulu I’ve ever seen, and one that in reality comes far closer in spirit to the Wedekind plays on which it is based.
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Works on This Recording
Lulu by Alban Berg
Guido Wieland (Voice),
Evelyn Lear (Soprano),
Rudolf Schock (Tenor),
Paul Schöffler (Baritone),
Kurt Equiluz (Tenor),
Hans Braun (Baritone),
Josef Knapp (Bass),
Gisela Litz (Mezzo Soprano)
Vienna Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1929-1935; Austria
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