martes, diciembre 29, 2015

From Lulu to Branford: the Weimar Republic contrasted with jazz

            Alban Berg´s "Wozzeck" is recognised as a masterpiece of Twentieth-Century opera, a stark social symbol of misery reflecting the decadence of the Weimar Republic, although it is based on a Georg Büchner drama of the preceding century; but this author was prophetic, incredibly advanced for his time, and his "Woyzeck" (yes, with y) is easily transposed to that time of crisis. Berg wrote it in 1920-21, although it was premièred in 1925.

            His second and last opera, "Lulu", was unfinished when he died in 1935, but only because he hadn´t finished the orchestration of the Third Act. In two acts it was premièred at Zurich in 1937. Berg was Viennese; he lived the Austria that had lost its Empire; it was an anguished country that could produce tortured painters like Egon Schiele; it was also the Vienna of Freudian psychoanalysis; and the city that gave birth to the Second Viennese School led by Arnold Schönberg, who had two great disciples: Berg and Anton Webern. Berg´s teacher brought music to atonality and then  to twelve-tone composition, radical departures.

            Berg was the author of the two libretti; he adapted Büchner in the first, and two plays by Frank Wedekind: "Erdgeist" ("Earth´s Spirit") and "Die Büchse der Pandora" ("Pandora´s box"); both make up "Lulu", created from 1894 to 1904. Says Frank Hirschback: Wedekind´s "works exude the spirit of decadence. His stage world was the demimonde of the European metropolis and the interaction betweem immoral and amoral people which he often sees as a ruthless struggle for survival".

            Two famous films were made on the subject: Pabst´s extraordinary mute opus with the fascinating Louise Brooks, and decades later,  the Neo-Expressionist view of Rolf Thiele.   I saw them both in this cinephile Buenos Aires. And then I witnessed the succesive premières of the opera: in two acts (1965), conductor Leitner, with the marvelous Lulu of Evelyn Lear; in three acts (the third orchestrated by Friedrich Cerha; 1993), conductor Stefan Lano, with the accomplished Patricia Wise as Lulu. Before 1993 I had bought the definitive recording led by Pierre Boulez of the three-act version, with the admirable Teresa Stratas.

            All this was rich experience for me, but I hadn´t seen "Lulu" for 22 years when I saw that the Met had included it in their 2015 repertoire and was programmed at the Teatro El Nacional by the Fundación Beethoven in its live transmission by satellite (a marvelous initiative of recent years: selected titles of the Metropolitan Season can be seem simultaneously here).

            Well, I´ll be straightforward: the production was quite different from the 1993 Colón one and it had its faults; neither was nearly as good as the very imaginative work of Ernst Pöttgen in 1965, to my mind an Expressionist reference of how to go about it. If José Plaza was rather cold and objective (1993), William Kentridge and Luc De Wit opted for a heavy reliance on almost continuous black-and-white projections by Catherine Meyburgh, on aesthetics that seemed derived from the American abstract expressionism of De Kooning and Hartung. They were too many and they distracted from the action. And they missed some crucial points; e.g., we don´t see Lulu as the serpent in the Prologue menagerie.        

            True, the action lacks the tightness and structure of "Wozzeck", but the music remains spellbinding. The libretto tells a grim story: Lulu, a prostitute since her teenage time, is protected by the newspaper editor Dr. Schön. He is killed by her, and two husbands die because of her infidelity.  Finally she lives a whore´s life until she is killed by Jack the Ripper! A degenerate, "an animal" as stated in the Prologue, but a charismatic "femme fatale", gets her retribution, so the opera doesn´t condone her, but it´s strong stuff.

            Marlis Petersen has sung Lulu in ten different productions, and this is her final appearance in this exhausting role. She is a major talent both vocally and as an actress, certainly one of the best. Of the others there is strong work from Johan Reuter (Schön) and Franz Grundheber (Schigolch, her delinquent "Father"). Susan Graham is better in other repertoires, the tenors seemed rather weak (Daniel Brenna and Paul Groves), and Martin Winkler sang well but lacks the "physique du rôle" (The Acrobat). The musical direction was very accurate (Martin Koenigs).

            I generally don´t cover jazz but I made an exception earlier this year for the presentation of Wynton Marsalis at the Colón, and now it seemed to me that his brother Branford Marsalis, also at the Colón, merited the exception, for he is one of the best saxophone players. He was the main figure of an ample jazz festival that took place at diverse venues.  The members of his quartet were: Samora Pinderhugues (piano), Russell Hall (bass) and Justin Faulkner (drums).

            The glorious past was represented by two Duke Ellington melodies, "In a mellow tone" and "It don´t mean a thing if it ain´t got that swing", and by that hoary New Orleans standard, "St.James´ Infirmary" (quoting at the end Chopin´s Funeral March). Otherwise we heard recent selections going from slow ballads to vertiginous uptempo items.

            Not surprisingly, the 55-year-old Branford, last heard here 23 years ago, remains an astonishing sax player, both soprano and tenor: lovely sound, absolute dexterity, fine improvisations.  Of the quartet I preferred the drumming (sometimes hectic); pianist and bassist are efficient but also showy.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

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