Seldom has the Eternal Feminine taken such a clobbering as it does in Lulu, the vehicle par excellence for extreme coloratura sopranos intent on roughing up their image. In 2010, the coruscating Baroque specialist Patricia Petibon took her turn, waving goodbye to Lully, Handel and Gluck for a season in Alban Berg's hell. Her role debut took place in the spring in Geneva, in the same Olivier Py coproduction filmed that autumn in Barcelona. Sandwiched in between came Petibon's star turn in the Vera Nemirova production at the Salzburg Festival.
Shocked reviews from Geneva — the city of Calvin — cited nudity and stag films. The DVD features a trim pubic triangle appliquéd to the heroine's body stocking and some muddy rhythmic doings on a movie screen. Spoiler alert: the parental-advisory sticker is pure window dressing.
A program essay describes the unit set as "a contemporary space that may remind viewers of a cheap shopping mall or a mixture of a gambling den, a sex shop and a cabaret." Well, maybe. The neon spokes of a giant wheel that moves back and forth provide a modicum of spectacle. Carnival grotesques and pole dancers, male and female, mill about.
All things to all suitors, Petibon appears as a redhead (think Lucille Ball), brunette (Louise Brooks) and blonde (Marilyn Monroe), modeling by turns a green satin teddy, a grimy pink bunny suit, a skeleton and a drop-dead gorgeous sequined gown. Schigolch, who may be Lulu's father or former pimp, wears full clown drag. The Athlete accessorizes his King Kong outfit with the apron and feather duster of a French chamber maid. Jack the Ripper masquerades as Father Christmas. None of Py's imagery in any way illuminates the characters or advances the story, but intermittently the dialogue ignites with febrile intensity.
Lulu has been making the rounds in fragmentary form for more than seventy years and in its posthumously completed form for more than thirty. Yet even now, singers still struggle to give Berg's word settings a natural flow or any inflection of their own. Veteran baritone Franz Grundheber's conversational ease in the role of Schigolch sets the bar very high on this score. Facing greater challenges, Petibon manages to shade a striking proportion of Lulu's icy lines with personal mystery, punctuated by bursts of caustic rage. Scattered spoken passages bring out her French accent, which sits oddly on the mixed formality and slang of Lulu's German. Yet here Petibon's kamikaze instincts are even eerier, surpassed only by her art in hurling killer glances, batting her plush eyelashes and voluptuously exposing the pearly teeth behind that million-dollar scarlet-lacquer smile. It's a mannered performance, for sure, but it works.
Resembling a Russell Crowe gone soft, baritone Ashley Holland gives the bully Dr. Schön bluster in excess but little deviltry; as the laconic Jack the Ripper, he is chilling. Lacking personality as the Animal Tamer, Andreas Hörl bounces to life as the brutish Athlete. As Lulu's lesbian doormat Countess Geschwitz, Julia Juon steers clear of maudlin sentiment, choosing to strike fierce, tragic sparks instead. As Alwa, tenor Paul Groves manages for the most part to preserve his instrument's native sheen.
Under Michael Boder, the Symphony Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu conveys a grinding heaviness all too rarely leavened by the curdled romanticism that may be Berg's most mesmerizing characteristic. At the Salzburg Festival, with Marc Albrecht at the helm, the Vienna Philharmonic reversed those proportions. Good news: the Salzburg edition is just out on Kultur. (Hard cheese for Barcelona.)
Petibon, Juon; Groves, Holland, Grundheber; Symphony Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Boder. Production: Py. Deutsche Grammophon 00440 073 4637 (2 DVDs), 181 mins., subtitled