Last November, Patricia Petibon's Lulu made her home-video debut on Deutsche Grammophon in an Olivier Py freak show originally mounted in Geneva in spring 2010 and reprised that fall, with cameras rolling, at the Liceu in Barcelona. As of February, she is back, this time on a Kultur Blu-ray release, memorializing Vera Nemirova's vastly superior production from the Salzburg Festival in the summer of that same year.
With her Titian hair, elfin stature, raptor's teeth and coral lipstick, the star again conveys existential cravings that reach far deeper than sex. In passages of banter, her light, silvery soprano shows great charm, but sustained flights to the stratosphere blaze with a tortured incandescence fueled by what seems sheer, crazed force of will. (At what cost remains to be seen.) Often, Petibon's crisp Gallic accent underscores the defensive formality of Lulu's German. But then, the hoarse ferocity of a spoken line or the glint in her ravenous eyes reveals in all its nakedness the despair behind the mask.
Mind you, Nemirova's show is scarcely the last word in theatrical sophistication. First of all, it fails to come to terms in any way with the unique challenges and opportunities of the Felsenreitschule, that baroque dressage arena with its three arcades hewn into the living rock. (The packaging mistakenly identifies the venue as the adjacent Haus für Mozart.) Acting as set designer, painter Daniel Richter treats the stage simply as raw gallery space for three of his oversize, increasingly irrelevant canvases, on average one per act. Act III, Scene 1, the gambling den in Paris, plays mostly in the aisles of the auditorium. Very tiresome. Act III, Scene 2, Lulu's London garret, is a tent in a beautifully rendered pine forest in winter.
A dresser in the shape of a pyramid provides drawers for Lulu's love slaves to hide in. For the rest, stage furniture is kept to the barest of essentials. But the costumes, by Klaus Noack, show the cast to fabulous advantage — especially Lulu, whose wardrobe mixes flawless couture with flourishes of circus fantasy. Snow white is her primary color, and feathers are her signature accessory. As an artist's model, Petibon wears lingerie and angel's wings. As a dancer, she sports the headdress of a parade horse or a Vegas showgirl. The cups of the bustier she favors as Schön's bored society wife run over with swan's down. For contrast, her wardrobe includes a drop-dead scarlet sheath, with stiletto heels to match.
The clothes go far to compensate for a certain poverty in the stage action. Nemirova's hand is visible in the wedding ring Lulu passes from husband to husband, and perhaps also in the businesslike way in which characters grab each other by the crotch. Mostly the traffic flow is desultory, and the telling gestures are few. Yet individually and as an ensemble, the players are riveting. Among them, the drama crackles. Hats off to Nemirova if the credit is hers.
First out of the box is Thomas Johannes Mayer — haunted as the Flying Dutchman, hammy as the Pirate King — shaping the Animal Trainer's sarcastic prologue in big, bold phrases and singing like a man possessed. In the dual role of Dr. Schön and Jack the Ripper, Michael Volle manipulates his prey in tone that is lean and mean and body language that is coercive. As the Painter and the Negro, two naïfs, Pavol Breslik oozes sex appeal, pouring on the glamorous tenor ardor one hopes for in "Nessun dorma." As Schön's son Alwa, another tenor, Thomas Piffka looks like Dr. Strangelove by way of Woody Allen but nearly matches Breslik in vocal allure. As sleek in physique as in tone, Tanja Ariane Baumgartner lends the Sapphic Countess Geschwitz class and breeding. The enigmatic Schigolch, who knew Lulu when, is Franz Grundheber, who has long had a lock on the role. (He sang it in Barcelona, too.)
Experts are forever pointing out that Berg's oppressive, decadent grandeur is nothing other than the lush, lilting idiom of fin de siècleVienna taken to its uttermost extreme. With Marc Albrecht on the podium, the Vienna Philharmonic truly makes the case. Oppressive and decadent the score remains, but the musicians onstage and in the pit extract from it every wisp of longing, every molecule of perfumed poison, even touches of humor.
Patricia Petibon, Tanja Ariane Baumgartner; Michael Volle, Thomas Piffka, Franz Grundheber; Vienna Philharmonic, Marc Albrecht. Production: Vera Nemirova. Kultur BD4779 (Blu-ray) or D4779 (2 DVDs), 182 mins., subtitled.