William Kentridge is now two for two at the Metropolitan Opera.
In 2010, in a momentous company debut, he directed a dazzling, frenetic production of Shostakovich’s wildly satirical opera “The Nose,” based on a Gogol short story.
The staging, which involved inventive projections and animated drawings by Mr. Kentridge, was not just the talk of the opera world.
It made the Met the center of the New York contemporary art scene for the duration of the run.
On Thursday, Kentridge’s much-anticipated new production of Alban Berg’s “Lulu” opened.
This landmark 12-tone opera, which Mr. Berg left incomplete when he died in 1935, is a much tougher assignment: a bleak, confounding story of a strange, alluring young woman, a street waif turned dancer and breezily amoral temptress.
The seminal work, with a libretto by Mr. Berg adapted from two plays by Frank Wedekind, proved an ideal fit for Mr. Kentridge’s darkly fantastical sensibility.
The last time a director and a production team for a boldly modern staging received such an ardent ovation at the Met was when Mr. Kentridge appeared during curtain calls for “The Nose.”
The Met’s terrific cast is headed by the charismatic German soprano Marlis Petersen as Lulu. Having been a sought-after Lulu for nearly two decades, Ms. Petersen will retire the role from her repertory at the end of this run, which makes it all the more imperative to see her now.
Uncertainty hovered over this production after word came last month that James Levine, who continues to grapple with health problems, was withdrawing as conductor of the production. “Lulu” was once a Levine specialty. The Met lined up Lothar Koenigs for the first five of eight performances. Conducting the now-standard three-act version of the score (most of the final act was orchestrated by the composer Friedrich Cerha in the 1970s), Mr. Koenigs drew a detailed, rich and insistent performance from the great Met orchestra. His command of this daunting work, and his ear for its stingingly expressive 12-tone language, came through over and over, even when Mr. Kentridge’s arresting imagery grabbed my attention.
The set, by Sabine Theunissen, consists of sliding panels of tan colors and Art Deco designs that suggest the German Expressionist era. The walls also serve as screens upon which Mr. Kentridge’s ink drawings and animations are projected. The woodcuts of Max Beckmann and other artists of the period were Mr. Kentridge’s inspiration here. The projections present a constant rush of drawn images: portraits (many resembling Mr. Berg); naked women (especially Lulu); newspaper pages either flapping in the breeze or turned by intruding hands; and much more.
After a prologue, in the first scene we see the Painter, as the character is called (the tenor Paul Groves) doing a portrait of Lulu in his Vienna studio. In this production (with costumes by Greta Goiris), Ms. Petersen poses in a kind of white flapper dress upon which attached pieces of painted paper suggest her intimate body parts. A white paper cylinder covers her head, with eyes and nose drawn in ink; she wears huge, eerie white paper gloves.
In Mr. Kentridge’s intriguing reading of the opera, Lulu is an object of desire for all men, who perceive her according to their desires and hang-ups. She in turn feels bound by, almost trapped within, their fantasies and her own inarticulate needs. When the Painter finishes the portrait, instead of a single image, it’s a jumble of almost Cubist-like sketches projected on the walls.
For me, Lulu’s most revealing moment comes in Act II, when she is speaking to Dr. Schön, a newspaper editor, formerly her lover and now her unhappy husband. Defending herself against charges that she is a ruthless femme fatale, Lulu says, for once seeming truly reflective, that she has never pretended to be “anything but what men see in me.” If a man views her in a certain way, well, she is going to use that perception for what it’s worth. This production expresses that idea by showing Lulu, who has gone through three husbands by the middle of Act II, with the perceptions of men sometimes literally attached to her.
Some people might find the constant flow of projected drawings and animations hectic and distracting. I had no problem focusing on the characters and letting the visuals provide a shifting atmospheric, albeit rather creepy, backdrop.
Mr. Kentridge and his team draw compelling performances from a gifted cast, artists who clearly embrace the production concept. As the Painter, Mr. Groves conveys sexual hunger for Lulu in the grainy intensity of his singing. The bass-baritone Johan Reuter brings a stalwart voice and haughty rectitude to Dr. Schön, who, we learn, found the 12-year-old Lulu walking the streets, gave her an education and made her his mistress. Of course, he courted a proper woman to marry. But he, too, winds up in Lulu’s fatal embrace, as her third husband, whom she shoots and kills impulsively during an irrational argument.
Daniel Brenna, an American tenor in his Met debut, brings a robust voice to Schön’s son, Alwa, an impressionable composer who also yearns for Lulu. Mr. Brenna conveys awkward earnestness in the role — at first, anyway. Alwa winds up pathetically dependent upon her. The baritone Franz Grundhaber makes a murky, disturbing Schigolch, an older man who may be Lulu’s father (or maybe a former lover?). He’s at once a leech, routinely asking Lulu for money, and lecherous, with his absurd yearning for her. The mezzo-soprano Susan Graham balances fragile dignity and poignant neediness in her performance as Countess Geschwitz, a lesbian who has also fallen for Lulu, in a power imbalance that Lulu plays cagily.
With her effortless coloratura, Ms. Petersen suggests the young woman’s flighty, ungrounded nature. But when crises come Lulu’s vocal lines turn crazed, with zigzagging leaps and sky-high sustained tones that Ms. Petersen sings with frightening intensity. And in Lulu’s moments of pensiveness and quiet fear, Ms. Petersen sings with a tender vulnerability that catches you off guard.
Mr. Kentridge invents two silent characters for his staging. A mannequinlike woman with slick black hair (Joanna Dudley) is always present, sometimes playing a piano, mostly sprawling atop it or inside it, all twisted and contorted. At times she dons a Lulu cylinder mask and strikes Lulu’s dancer poses. It’s as if this piano-playing stand-in for Lulu is presiding over the performance. Her partner (Andrea Fabi) is a wiry valet who provides props to characters and lurks about ominously. Maybe he’s a Wedekind stand-in. In any event, an idea that could have been heavy-handed provides a surreal touch in sync with the overall concept.
The story ends abysmally. Lulu, now degraded, is working as a prostitute. She has fled to London to avoid being imprisoned at home for murdering Dr. Schön. Living in a garret with her are Schigolch and Alwa, both now dysfunctional. They act as a pair of seedy pimps for Lulu, who brings home the wrong client: Jack the Ripper (Mr. Reuter).
I know that the very term “12-tone technique” makes some music lovers recoil. I wish they could hear this ingeniously structured, grimly beautiful work, especially in this stunning and searing production.
“Lulu” runs at the Metropolitan Opera House through Dec. 3.
A Taunting Mirror of Her Hapless Lovers’ Desires .