A respectably-costumed bourgeoise Sunday matinee 'Lulu'? Then this production by the Zurich Opera House is NOT for you! This is a lurid, tawdry, narratively fragmented, erotically supercharged 'Lulu', exactly what it should be, in short: defiantly "entartete Kunst"! After all, Max Beckmann and Georg Grosz didn't paint water-lilies, and "The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari" didn't rely on realistic sets. Alban Berg's unfinished opera "Lulu" is one of the icons of German Expressionism in music, alongside Berg's own earlier opera "Wozzeck", and despite the brutal depravity both works portray, both have become 'standards' in the repertoires of opera companies around the world. This popularity really isn't because proper middle/upper class opera audience relish seeing their psychological closets flung open, though that might contribute. It's the music, the astounding idiomatic musical energy of Berg's vocal lines and especially his orchestral interludes. Berg's version of "twelve-tone' serial composition is every bit as rigorous as his master Arnold Schoenberg could have demanded, yet Berg imbues his intellectualism with a passionate melodicism that no other serialist ever achieved.
This staging is a Caligarian cabinet stuffed with symbols and foreshadowings, and lacking some of the usual 'markers' of identity that more timid stagings employ in order to keep the characters straight. All the males, for instance, look much alike in clothing and hair-styling. The stage props are meticulously illogical and self-conscious. If you've never seen a different production of Lulu or read a solid synopsis of the libretto, you'll need the sort of intuition to follow the 'plot' that you need to interpret a painting by Kirchner, Nolde, or Munch. But frankly, this is not a staging intended to 'introduce' anyone to Berg. Like many European productions of mainstream operas today, this is a staging that assumes that you've seen/heard more conventional Lulus half a dozen times. It's therefore an 'expansion' of prior expectations, not 'revisionist' but rather a 'restoration' of the original shock value of such a work. It IS intended to be shocking, dear opera fans, and if a staging lacks any SHOCK! it's hardly what Berg intended.
Laura Aiken is a shocking Lulu, and not merely because her breasts are exposed much of the time. She's a lascivious Lulu, brittle and predatory, too sexually cruel to be compared tritely to a tigress, and Laura Aiken has both the face and the acting skills to play the role. She's the only physically convincing Lulu I've ever seen, among that prerequisite half-dozen stagings, compellingly sensual enough to wring all morality and rationality out of the men around her. The acting in this production is as precisely choreographed and stylized as a Kabuki theater piece or a Russian ballet, and Laura Aiken deploys every element of her physical stage presence, from her eyebrows to her toes, expressively. Fortunately, she also sings consistently with her character portrayal. Her voice glitters like the ever-present razor in her high passages. Her tuning is scalpel precise and needs no vibrato for projection. Her musicianship, in this opera more important than mere singership, reveals the melodic allusions encased in Berg's serialism.
Every other character, especially Dr. Schön as sung by Alfred Muff, achieves the same effective unity of acting and singing. The rehearsals for this production must have been exhausting. Likewise, the Zurich Orchestra renders Berg's complex music as precise as a Swiss watch. Franz Welser-Möst is a formidable perfectionist, as skillful at exposing the inner voices of an orchestration as Wilhelm Furtwängler was.
Lulu is an unfinished opera. One has to deal with that problem both on stage and in the audience. The first two acts used to be performed without any third act, since Berg's widow refused permission for anyone to attempt to complete the third act from the portions that were left in various forms after Berg's death. In 1979, Friedrich Cerha finally completed a version of the third act, one that has become the standard of most productions. This staging in Zurich, however, eschewed Cerha's third act and reverted to any earlier modus of performance. The third act is simply a truncated pantomime of Lulu's grisly death -- her throat slashed by Jack the Ripper -- using the orchestration from Berg's "Lulu Suite". You'll have to decide for yourselves whether such an finale is satisfactory, but I think the decision will be easiest for those who have seen/heard other performances of Lulu.
There are at least four other recent DVD versions of Lulu available, with Evelyn Lear, Patricia Petibon, Agneta Eicheholz, and Christine Schäfer in the title role. They all have their merits, though Schäfer's performance is the least satisfactory, but this one with Laura Aiken is the most vivid.