Live review: The Met delivers an alluring Lulu

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Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

At its worst, opera consists of unfocused hyenas clinging to rote mannerisms and scraping their way to top notes. At its best, opera is taut drama often about profoundly messed-up characters accompanied by core-shaking music. And while productions of dissonant, 12-tone operas can often tend toward the former, the Metropolitan Opera's revival of Lulu is firmly rooted in the latter.

Left unfinished at the composer's death, Alban Berg's final opera is an intense thriller with which Tim Burton could have great fun; the weight of it rests on the shoulders of a strong lead and an even stronger orchestra. At more than 30 years old, John Dexter's staging may not compare with whatever His Gothic Highness could cook up, but it remains one of the most handsomely understated productions in the Met's arsenal.

Sure, in the weeks leading up to Saturday afternoon's opening the production seemed to be facing some major problems. German soprano Marlis Petersen faced a critically tepid reception for her 11th-hour performance in Hamlet, and James Levine (Lulu's go-to maestro) withdrew from the performance for health reasons. But Fabio Luisi's assumption of the podium led to an inspired and ravishing account of Berg's gaunt, grim score, infusing it with minimalist decadence and kinky traditionalism.

A multitude of murders and suicides featured some gripping, white-knuckle points of musical drama, and moments of submission to the titular femme fatale were sonically orgasmic. The latter was especially helped by Petersen's performance as Lulu—her voice's light and lithe brushstrokes were excellently suited to Berg's impeccable, architectural score. She was a lioness who made the stage her den until the final scene, in which we see her literally washed up and stripped bare. Her childlike naf interior amplifies the final tragedy of her death (at the hands of none other than Jack the Ripper).

Petersen's costar in Hamlet, James Morris, returned to her side as the Machiavellian Dr. Schn, a role wholly suited to the aging bass-baritone. Likewise, mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter held her own as the Countess Geschwitz. As Schn's son Alwa, Gary Lehman was disarmingly sympathetic in an otherwise bloodless world.

Criminally, Lulu runs for only two more performances (May 12 and 15). There are still tickets to be had: Go, and plan on a cold shower afterward.

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