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For Better or Worse, a Real ‘Lulu’ of a Production

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

“Lulu,” in San Francisco circa the end of the millennium, seems just about right. Alban Berg’s opera was written more than 60 years ago in a very different environment, Vienna in the last gasps of horrifying artistic expressionism and the first of horrifying Nazi oppression. But it has taken us some time to understand who its extraordinarily amoral heroine is and what this shocking opera means.

“Lulu” is certainly a study of sex and morality. It goes deeper than that, however. It is a portrayal of feminine behavior so exaggerated from society’s norm that it causes us to question just what those norms are meant to represent. A perfect question to pose in this city of alternate lifestyles, this community of vanguard academic social thinking.

So San Francisco Opera has appropriately chosen to open its June Femmes Fatales Festival (which also includes “Carmen” and Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea”) with a protagonist who lives, it seems, only to seduce, leaving death and destruction in her callous wake. Yet Berg’s opera here, in its second performance at the War Memorial Opera House, too often resembles a trivial, playful, wacky comedy.

It does, though, boast quite a Lulu. Eilana Lappalainen, a former Miss Santa Clara County, portrays Lulu as closer to Marilyn Monroe than Louise Brooks, the classic Lulu in the silent film “Pandora’s Box,” and she also looks enough like a Marilyn Monroe type, especially in one gown that appears to be made of sequins and little else, to pull it off.

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But Lappalainen’s real attributes are her voice. This is a punishing role. There is lots of sex in the opera (some of it fairly graphic in this production) and also plenty of degradation as Lulu’s world falls apart in the opera’s second half--she eventually has her throat slit by Jack the Ripper.

Lulu appears in every scene of this nearly four-hour opera, and she has a wild range of incredibly difficult music, music that ranges from atonal hysteria to all the tricks of the captivation trade. Lappalainen sang it all not just securely but with aplomb. She sounded as fresh and silvery at the end (too fresh for the drama, really) as she did at the beginning. She may not have captured Lulu’s complexities and inconsistencies, but she commands her music.

But then she was asked to be little more than a parody seductress in the glitzy production that the company’s general director, Lotfi Mansouri, had created nine years ago (some flashy costumes by Bob Mackie, of Las Vegas and Sonny and Cher fame, were new). It is the kind of production, set in a circus with cartoony expressionist sets by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen, in which chilling lines from Lulu get laughs.

Still, the large cast of Lulu victims was consistently fine. Frederica von Stade was particularly moving as the lesbian Countess Geschwitz. Among the others were Franz Mazura (Schigolch), and Tom Fox (an elegant Dr. Schon) and Christopher Lincoln (an ardent Alwa), Lulu’s father-and-son lovers. Stefan Lano conducted with impressive efficiency.

At the center of the opera, Berg calls for a short film to depict Lulu’s arrest (for the murder of Dr. Schon) and subsequent escape from prison. In a brilliant move for the revival of his production, Mansouri capitalized on the city’s cutting-edge computer graphics industry. Tim and Linda Schaller used a combination of live action and computer animation to produce what looked like a vivid update of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” This is exactly what Berg’s opera, and opera today, call for.

* “Lulu,” June 19, 23, 7 p.m.; June 28, 1 p.m., Femmes Fatales Festival, San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave. $20-$140. (415) 864-3330.


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