NEW YORK — What do we see in Lulu?
The title character of Berg's great 12-tone opera is no stranger to seduction, but the work's spell in fact originates on the level of sound itself. No other opera can match its black-light glow, or pulses with its combination of unsettling dissonance and uncanny beauty.
But in his eagerly awaited new production, which opened on Thursday night at the Metropolitan Opera, the South African artist William Kentridge seems to be posing this question in a rather more literal sense: What do we see in Lulu?
After all, as he points out, the spiralling tragedy of this work, which Berg adapted from two Wedekind plays, is set in motion as Lulu poses for a portrait. The painter, as he immortalizes her image, also falls in love. The portrait takes on a life of its own as this dark opera progresses and the corpses of Lulu's lovers pile up. Each is undone by an obsessive desire to possess Lulu and, once they do (or think they do), their wish to seal her own subliminal drives within the prison of her image.
Kentridge and his team have built a production that turns on this central notion of visuality. As in his previous Met staging of Shostakovich's "The Nose," the artist uses projections heavily, both to summon the interwar artistic milieu of the opera's birth and to reflect on these themes of possession and estrangement, as they find common ground within the acquisitional male gaze. The production's stark black-and-white visual language is deployed primarily through ink drawings, newsprint, and images inspired by period woodcuts. Familiar faces from the era come and go. Lulu's costume, with erotic ink drawings affixed to her body, underscores the director's central conceit: Clearly, we are meant to grasp, she cannot separate from the images projected onto her.
It all makes for an absorbing visual environment, and somewhere here amid the slashing inky lines and the flickering bodies there is a poetry and a sensitivity for Berg's score. Kentridge's abstract approach, so different from the fine John Dexter production it replaces, frees this intensely Freudian work to wander suggestively through the corridors of the viewer's subconscious. That said, in a few too many moments, the churn of images feels gesturally repetitive, as if Kentridge is illustrating this opera rather than interpreting it. His point of view, in other words, can at times feel recessed behind the stage spectacle.
Happily, this production's strong cast also tends to speak for itself. Susan Graham captures both the pride and desperation of Countess Geschwitz, and Daniel Brenna is a sympathetic Alwa. Johan Reuter sings compellingly as both Dr. Schön, killed by Lulu, and Jack the Ripper, who finally does her in. Franz Grundheber exhibits veteran stage instincts in the role of Schigolch.
At the center of the cast is Marlis Petersen's arresting Lulu. This is her signature role, though she will retire it after this current production. Through dramatic presence and superb singing, Petersen conveys the character's mix of measured guile and heedless impetuosity. Her Lulu controls the men around her, yet has no control over her own life. In this sense, Petersen drives home a key point: Even as it plumbs dark and restive corners of the human psyche, "Lulu" is also an opera about the fundamental opacity of the self.
In the pit, Lothar Koenigs replaced James Levine, who withdrew from this production. One missed the enveloping lushness that Levine can summon from this score, but Koenigs's account was helpful in its clarity and tonal depth. The opera was left unfinished at the composer's death in 1935, and this staging uses the completion of the third act by Friedrich Cerha.
Ultimately Kentridge's production engages more than it seduces, but this "Lulu" is still very much worth catching at the Met or through its simulcast (on Nov. 21) in local theaters. Unless one has an allergy to 12-tone music, the opera remains an irresistible work, poised at multiple thresholds of music and of history. With a modernist's scalpel and a Romantic's sensitivity, Berg dissects his society's darkest instincts and drives at precisely the moment they were poised to explode over Europe. In this sense the score's loving glance backward toward the worlds of Mahler and Wagner is all the more poignant because it comes with no illusions about its own moment. "At all times," as Theodor Adorno wrote, "the music knows within itself the lateness of the hour."
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.