The Met Streams Lulu, Orfeo, and Tosca

By Lynne Gray, PhD

Please note these can be streamed from www.metopera.org.

Tuesday, June 2

Berg’s  Lulu ~ 3 Hrs & 22 Mins

Conducted by Lothar Koenigs, starring Marlis Petersen, Susan Graham, Daniel Brenna, Paul Groves, Johan Reuter, and Franz Grundheber. Transmitted live on November 21, 2015.

As we have certainly seen in last few months, few existences are more dangerous than those of opera heroines. Our divas must constantly contend with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of lethal conditions. Even by operatic standards, however, Berg’s Lulu (1937) tells a particularly harrowing tale. (We’ve certainly seen Berg produce harrowing tales in the past – witness Wozzeck.) Based on two plays by Frank Wedekind, Lulu is the story of a femme fatale, who “entertains” and/or marries a series of men, kills or causes the deaths of four of them, is of course herself victimized all along the way, and is ultimately slain by Jack the Ripper (!) while working as a prostitute.

As is Berg’s style, he chooses stories with depth, ambiguity, and psychological impact that are usually unsettling, and sets them to unforgettable scores, enigmatic in their complexity and power. He is especially notable for using a style called serialism (a method of composition using repeating series of pitches, rhythms, dynamics, timbres, or other musical elements) during a time that was particularly inhospitable to such “modernism.” Berg died before completing this one, and a ‘completed’ version was not heard until 1979.

William Kentridge’s graphic and multi-layered production stars charismatic soprano Marlis Petersen in the title role (we’ve seen her amazing work as Ophélie in Hamlet)— she is the enigmatic and alluring woman who is in equal parts, a femme fatale, an innocent girl, and an abused victim. The men around her, whose lives she forever alters (not to say what they have done to her!), are Johan Reuter as newspaper publisher, Dr. Schön; Daniel Brenna as his composer son, Alwa; Paul Groves as the Painter; and Franz Grundheber as Schigolch. Susan Graham (last week’s Didon in Les Troyens and Margarite in La Damnation de Faust) sings Countess Geschwitz, and Lothar Koenigs conducts Berg’s unusual score.

Berg specified that several cast members should sing more than one role – thus, Lulu’s three husbands while she is in Vienna, each come back as a client when she is a prostitute in London. A single mezzo is assigned the three roles of The Dresser, The Schoolboy and The Groom; a single tenor is The Prince, The Manservant and The Marquis; a bass is The Animal Tamer and The Athlete. Only the five main characters have actual names – Lulu, Schön, Alwa, Geschwitz and Schigolch.

The work begins with a Prologue: The Animal Tamer (whip in hand) invites the audience to visit his menagerie —featuring “the serpent Lulu.” (remind you of the Garden of Eden?) He goes on to describe her in biblical terms as the source of evil, fated to murder, “Sie ward Nescafe, Unheil anzustiften … Zu morden – ohne dass es einer spürt” (She was created, evil to instigate … to murder – without leaving any clues). I don’t know about you, and not to belabor a point here, but this reminds me of original sin being blamed on Eve – not to mention so many other women in opera – as we have seen before, she is reviled for what a male dominated world accepts as ‘normal’ for itself (see last week’s Salome article).

At any rate, just like Salome and Wozzeck, this is an opera for the adventurous – and the open minded. I will not even begin to explain the plot for you – too many characters, too many twists, too many relationships, too many lovers – of both genders, too many murders, etc. There is no doubt that Berg’s music is incredible, interesting, moving, and disturbing – so listen, or watch – if you are curious, or pass if you are not. All operas aren’t for everyone!

Wednesday, June 3

Gluck’s  Orfeo ed Euridice ~ 1 Hr & 39 Mins

Conducted by James Levine, starring Danielle de Niese, Heidi Grant Murphy, and Stephanie Blythe. Transmitted live on January 24, 2009.

The immortal Orpheus myth — something of an origin story for the power of music — has inspired numerous operas and other compositions, including this 1762 masterpiece by Christoph Willibald Gluck. A prime example of what has come to be known as “reform opera,” Orfeo ed Euridice strips away the vocal virtuosity and labyrinthine plotlines common in earlier 18th-century opera, replacing them with musical and emotional directness intended to draw the audience more deeply into the drama. It also belongs to the genre called azione teatrale, meaning an opera based on a mythological subject where choruses and dancing are of equal importance to the solo singers. There actually are two versions of this opera – the more often performed Italian version, and a French version, Orphée et Eurydice with a different libretto and orchestrations written to better suit French tastes.

Director and choreographer Mark Morris’s production of this timeless masterpiece updates the immortal Orpheus story from its ancient Greek roots to a “timeless present” where, he says, “the union of chorus and dancers feels inevitable and inseparable.” The chorus and the dancers are completely fundamental to the whole – when I saw this opera in Chicago (in the French version), it was a joint production between the Lyric Opera and the Joffrey Ballet. The Met’s production (in the Italian version which I saw last Fall) features the Mark Morris Dance Group with costumes by Isaac Mizrahi and a set designed by Allen Moyer. The amazing triple-decker set surrounds the action with the entire Met chorus (more than 100 individuals) dressed as a crowd of historic figures – each as a distinct – and often historically recognizable person who is meant to bear witness to the story’s transformative power of love.

Orfeo is sung by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe in this traditional “trouser role” (we’ve seen her already as the strong-willed Frika in the Ring, as the clever Mrs. Quickly in Falstaff, and as the mysterious gypsy fortune teller, Ulrica in Ballo). He is so consumed with grief at the sudden death of his beloved Euridice (Danielle de Niese) that the gods (represented by Heidi Grant Murphy as Amor) are moved to allow him to descend to the underworld and lead her back — if he will not look at her on the way.

When the opera opens, we find Orfeo at Euridice’s grave. Nymphs and shepherds join him in his lament for his lost love – who was bitten by a snake (but that’s a different story!). Orfeo continues his grieving, “Chiamo il mio ben così” (Thus do I call my love) and is so moving that the Gods send Amore to tell him he may go to the Underworld to retrieve Euridice – with the one condition that he may not look upon her until they are back on earth – and he cannot explain why he can’t look at her either.

Act 2 follows Orfeo on his journey through the Underworld. At the gates, the furies and ghosts try to impede his progress. He eventually charms them with the power of his music and is finally allowed to pass through to the Elysium fields. Orfeo arrives and marvels at the purity of the air and the new heavens he sees in a famous arioso “Che puro ciel”/”Quel nouveau ciel.” He finds no solace, however, in the beauty of his surroundings, for Euridice is not yet with him. He implores the spirits to bring her to him, which they do – “Torna, o bella”/”Près du tendre objet.”

The way out is equally difficult through a dark labyrinth. Euridice is unable to understand why Orfeo will not look at her, will not kiss her and will not explain why. As the way up grows even more challenging, Euridice finally takes Orfeo’s silence to be a sign that he no longer loves her, and she refuses to continue, concluding that death would be preferable. Unable to take any more, Orfeo turns and looks at Euridice; and immediately, she dies again.

The distraught Orfeo sings of his grief in the opera’s most famous aria “Che farò senza Euridice?”/”J’ai perdu mon Eurydice” (“What shall I do without Euridice?”/”I have lost my Euridice”). Orfeo then decides he must kill himself as well to join Euridice in Hades. At the last minute, the Gods again relent, and Amore returns to stop him. Euridice is returned to Orfeo and all sing in praise of Amore as they travel back to Earth and the Temple of Love. There is a lovely four-movement ballet of celebration, and Orfeo, Euridice, Amor, the nymphs, and the shepherds all rejoice at the power of love (“Trionfi Amore!”).

Thursday, June 4

Puccini’s  Tosca ~ 2 Hrs & 4 Mins

Conducted by James Conlon, starring Shirley Verrett, Luciano Pavarotti, Cornell MacNeil. Transmitted live on December 19, 1978.

In his classic tragedy, Puccini takes on some of humanity’s strongest motivating forces—love and loyalty, greed, and cruelty—to create an operatic thriller that grabs the listener with its opening organ chords and never lets go. Taking place in Rome in 1800, the story concerns a fiery diva, the painter/revolutionary sympathizer she loves, and a truly evil police chief determined to crush the rebels and to claim Tosca for himself. All three are among opera’s most indelible characters and they are sung here by some of operas greatest stars.

The stellar cast brings Puccini’s story to dramatic life with Luciano Pavarotti as Cavaradossi, the painter and revolutionary who is in love with the beautiful singer, Floria Tosca (the riveting Shirley Verrett). Rome’s diabolical chief of police, Baron Scarpia, is Cornell MacNeil, who wants Tosca all for himself—and will stop at nothing to have her. There is love, loyalty, torture, murder, and suicide – all the elements of a truly dramatic opera experience — and this classic telecast captures them all. James Conlon conducts in a production designed by the incomparable Tito Gobbi, himself one of the greatest Scarpias of the 20th century.

This is yet another extraordinary chance to see and hear some opera’s greatest voices from the past. Hard to miss it. For a more complete discussion of the story itself, see my article on the April 21st Met free transmission.

Photo Credits

1.              Marlis Petersen as Lulu at the Met. Photo Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

2.              Johan Reuter as Dr. Schön and Marlis Petersen in the title role of Berg’s “Lulu” at the Met. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

3.              A scene from William Kentridge’s production of “Lulu” at the Met. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

4.              Danielle de Niese, left, as Euridice and Stephanie Blythe as Orfeo in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “Orfeo ed Euridice.” Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

5.              A scene from Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice” with the Mark Morris Dance Group at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

6.              A scene from Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice” with the Mark Morris Dance Group at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

7.             Shirley Verrett as Tosca and Luciano Pavarotti as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s “Tosca.” Photo: Met Opera Archives.

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