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Bourgeois morality tales: ‘Traviata’ vs. ‘Lulu’ (3rd review)BY: Robert Zaller 11.07.2010
Verdi’s La Traviata and Berg’s Lulu seem worlds apart sonically and dramatically, but they share a vision of the bourgeois world in which an untrammeled female temptress is sacrificed, in one case on the altar of respectability and on the other to Jack the Ripper’s knife. Now, where is the composer who’ll do justice to the Age of Madoff?
La Traviata. Opera by Giuseppe Verdi; directed by Robert B. Driver; Corrado Rovaris conducted. Opera Company of Philadelphia production May 7-16, 2010 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Sts. (215) 732-8400 or www.operaphila.org.
Lulu. Opera by Alban Berg; directed by Gregory Keller; Fabio Luisi conducted. May 8-15, 2010 at Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, Broadway and 64th St., New York. (212) 362-6000 or metopera.org.
When the opera makes no sense,
All opera begins with literature. No one knows or particularly cares what Cosi fan tutte is about, but without the words there would have been no opera— maybe another Mozart symphony or concerto (or two), but not those particular arias and ensembles. We want opera music to carry us away, to reveal our common humanity in ways mere words cannot. But opera is still a dramatic medium; the words structure the music, its meaning and content, its pace and direction. And sometimes they tell us as much if not more about the world they arose from than the music itself.
This past spring’s hearing of two very different operas— the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s new production of Verdi’s La Traviata and the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Alban Berg’s Lulu— provide cases in point. They’re worlds apart in musical style, Verdi’s score floridly Romantic and Berg’s, though no less lush, based on 12-tone serialism. But both are firmly grounded in a bourgeois ethos of sexual commoditization. In fact, you might say that they’re actually the same story turned inside out, and seen through lenses posted at the beginning and end of the classic bourgeois era.
La Traviata is, of course, based on the Alexandre Dumas novel La Dame aux Camelias, in the libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. Its heroine, Violetta, is, like the Berg’s Lulu, a courtesan of the modern era, which is to say the prototypic “liberated” woman, the free dispenser of her own sexual wares.
Unlike her less elevated sisters of the night, Violetta doesn’t peddle sex for money, though she accepts it as the due for her favors. You can see her like peering out of French Renaissance portraits, except that such ladies of pleasure were the kept women of a court, while Violetta and Lulu hold court themselves in the dance and gaming halls of the urban demimonde. Violetta says candidly in an early aria that she lives for pleasure, and Lulu says much the same thing: not the pleasure that they can give others, but the pleasure they take for themselves.
Call such a woman the bourgeois courtesan if you like, but with the understanding that such a figure actually subverts all bourgeois values. In bourgeois exchange, a consideration— usually monetary— is given for a service or product received. Both are quantified: so much of this for so much of that. But a Violetta or a Lulu charge her suitors for what she is actually taking for herself.
Whether the suitors obtain pleasure in return (or whatever else they may seek) is immaterial to these women. Their time and company is all they offer, revocable at their pleasure. Nor is theirs a prix fixe menu. They can take your wallet and take your soul. The transaction is never defined and therefore never complete.
Bourgeois urge to ‘spend’
From a bourgeois point of view, this arrangement is highly unsatisfactory, though it’s also highly captivating, since the deepest instinct of the bourgeois is to “spend” himself in every sense— as an entrepreneur, a gambler and a sexual athlete. For the individual bourgeois, possession of the society courtesan is the ultimate prize, since her nature is caprice; for bourgeois society in general, however, she is the ultimate threat: the commodity that is never sufficiently paid for, and that turns to quicksilver in one’s hands.
That’s what La Traviata is about. Its context— Paris in the 1840s— is the transition from an aristocratic to a bourgeois society.
Alfredo Germont, a young nobleman, falls in love with Violetta, a sentiment she habitually returns with scorn. In the truncated libretto version, however, Violetta inexplicably returns his passion, gives up her gay and giddy life and, when approached by Alfredo’s father, Giorgio, allows herself to be persuaded to renounce him lest their scandalous liaison destroy the family’s chance to make an advantageous marriage for Alfredo’s “pure” sister.
What Giorgio should have said
Everything about this scenario rings false. “Love” is a bourgeois entrapment for which Violetta is far too sophisticated to fall; it belongs to the stilted commerce of courtship and marriage, the realm of captivity in which the free female sexuality she represents is confined and destroyed.
Even if she does fall in love, why does Giorgio come to her to break up the liaison? Surely he should take his son aside for the tedious lecture on family honor, and drive home the point that he is not only costing his sister her “happiness” but the family a great deal of money. Since Alfredo presumably lives on an allowance, this argument should win the day.
Violetta is nonetheless persuaded to accept the very values she despises, as she and Giorgio sing the duet of her renunciation, “Dite alle giovane.” Only Verdi’s lyric genius could make this situation in the least degree plausible. Violetta returns to her old life, not to recapture its pleasures but as a final act of self-sacrifice that leads Alfredo to forswear her by flinging his gambling winnings at her feet— a quintessentially bourgeois gesture in which he finally puts a “price” on the fallen woman. Giorgio, who witnesses this humiliation, then rebukes his son for falling into exactly the trap Giorgio has set for him.
Dame Consumption comes to the rescue of this plot, taking Violetta off in Act III with a suitably repentant Alfredo at her bedside and Giorgio at a discreet and humbled distance. His daughter, of course, will have her match, and the family its infusion of capital. Violetta, presumably, will have a priest for her funeral.
Alban Berg created his own libretto for Lulu from two works by the Austrian Expressionist playwright Frank Wedekind. Berg’s heroine is, even more than Violetta, a femme fatale who plays on men’s fascination with her while remaining untouched by their lust.
In this debauched and nakedly acquisitive world— there’s even a stock market crash at one point— love is a power equation, but absolutely out of the question as a possible relationship between two people. Still, Lulu has learned one lesson of the bourgeois game; within the opera’s first two acts, she has married three times, on each occasion with fatal results for the spouse.
There is hardly even a pretense of dramatic development as the plot lurches from one lurid episode to another; but Lulu is essentially an icon, a projection of others’ fantasies. Only the lesbian Countess Geschwitz seems to carry a real torch for her, but Lulu is merely bemused: There’s no husband and no fortune to be gained from that.
No sentiment here
Lulu is imprisoned for the murder of her last husband and is stricken with cholera; down on her luck after making her escape, she is reduced to prostitution in London, where she suffers the ill luck to pick up Jack the Ripper on her first night. Jack dispatches both her and the Countess with a knife, as the opera (left incomplete by Berg, though sketched in short score) comes to its distinctly unredeemed close.
There’s no sentiment here— simply the final acting-out of a pervasively violent world of which The Ripper seems only the logical conclusion and embodiment. This isn’t merely bourgeois society with a vengeance, but capitalism as vengeance: a social order bankrupt in every sense of the word.
Both productions were impressive, although setting La Traviata in the 1920s as the Opera Company’s director Robert B. Driver did, is in error; this opera is very specific to its historic moment, as I have tried to show, and as the censors of Verdi’s time appreciated in forcing the original production back (quite absurdly) to the 1720s.
Leah Partridge sang Violetta well, and Mark Stone was a suitably bourgeois patriarch as the elder Germont, though Charles Castronovo’s Alfredo could have used a bit more heft for my taste. Paul Shortt’s set was topped by a huge, tilted mirror which Boyd Ostroff’s lighting played off to good effect, suggesting the essential doubleness and artifice of La Traviata’s world.
A too-cool Lulu
The German soprano Marlis Petersen was also in fine voice as Lulu, though a shade cool dramatically. Anne Sofie von Otter was a stylishly pathetic Countess, and Met veteran James Morris lent distinction both as Lulu’s victim, Dr. Schon, and her slayer Jack the Ripper. Bulked up in an overcoat in the latter role, he was remarkably reminiscent of Laird Cregar’s film Jack in The Lodger.
Berg’s rich and fascinating score was well served by Fabio Luisi, substituting for the ailing James Levine, and the Met audience gave him and the orchestra deservedly warm ovations at each act.
Serialism did not prevent Berg from producing a post-Romantic work that seems in many respects a projection of how Mahler might have written opera had he survived into Weimar Germany and developed a taste for the decadent.
In a sense, Lulu closed the book on that era; the Nazis were introducing their own advanced brand of decadence even as Berg reached the latter stages of composition. Our own, postmodern bourgeois era still awaits its memorial. We’ve no Verdi or Berg on hand though, and it’s hard to imagine an idiom savage enough to do it justice.♦
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