The Met tackles Berg's 'Lulu,' an operatic blockbuster

The fight was protracted and bitter, and the final cost to the world of opera in this country may not be felt for several years, but the unions at the Metropolitan Opera finally settled with management, and the season began Dec. 12 .

I say began, because actually the Met has already performed Mahler's Second Symphony, a chorus-and-orchestra piece. But that could hardly be called an opening event. It was rather a stopgap sputter to get the ball rolling and allow the company to unveil its three-act version of Berg's "Lulu" two nights later.

The Mahler Symphony that "opened" the season is subtitled "Resurrection." It was put on as an effort to show peace and harmony between chorus and orchestra, and give both groups a concert-stage spotlight.

The Met orchestra has what it wanted -- the admission by management -- though a tacit one -- that it has the rights of a full- fledged symphony orchestra. Unfortunately, as was proved during the Birgit Nilsson recital last year, and rather too obviously in the Mahler, it does not playm like a major US symphony orchestra.

All through the evening I was reminded of some of those pioneer recordings of difficult music played by lesser ensembles in Europe -- struggling with tuning, with the technical demands of a score that is really beyond its means. The bare truth is that the Met orchestra is an adequate pit orchestra that has been improving dramatically under James Levine's guidance and prodding. But put it on a stage, give it hard scrutiny, and one is instantly reminded of its shortcomings.

Levine's ideas on Mahler are stunning -- he is one of the few conductors today who know where each detail of this symphony fits within the framework. He got his orchestra to execute some of it, but the winds remained too consistently out of tune, the brass blatted and blared too raucously, the strings did not blend and melt. The entire sound is foursquare and unpliant -- the orchestra lacks the technical headroom for suppleness that only virtuoso ensembles have.

Marilyn Horne's singing was sumptuous; Judith Blegen's, fresh and shimmering. The chorus sounded so solid and full that the closing pages of the Mahler were bound to please. But overall, the performance told a great deal about the players that now rank in hours and pay with the Boston Symphony and the Cleveland and Philadelphia orchestras.

This came further to home during the first "Lulu" of the season. Now that Berg's opera is not a torso but a full three- act work, it may win new friends. It is not an easy opera (and, in an English-speaking country where the work is not well known, it simply demanded to be done in English -- it wasn't). In Santa Fe, N.M., in 1977, Michael Tilson Thomas showed us what a sumptuous, eloquent, haunted, agonized score this really is. At the Met, Levine showed us what a noisy, angular, antimelodic score it can become. This is surprising from a man who can work such magic in Mahler, who finds unutterable beauty in so much of the music he plays.

Teresa Stratas was to have been the Lulu when this production was new in 1976 . She was the first "complete" Lulu in the Paris production of 1978, recorded on DG. Histrionically, she makes her points with subtle detail and, if studying her through good opera glasses, one could marvel at so much of her acting. But she is quite tiny in stature for so large a stage and her acting is of the intimate school which does not always get across in so large a house as the Met. degradation in the last scene.

Vocally, it was an altogether less commendable situation. The role lies too high for her, and the constant stridency and stress dramatically undercut any cumulative effect she could make. This music does not havem to sound ugly.

Franz Mazura was making his Met debut as Dr. Schon. He is a vivid personality, a marvelous actor, and a superb musician -- in all an ideal impersonation of a tremendously difficult role. Evelyn Lear, once the most important Lulu in the world, was Countess Geschwitz in this production. All the acting polish and presence we have come to expect of her were put to use for a brilliantly etched presentation of this confused, noble creature, and vocally she was in splendid form. Frank Little had a few problems with the Painter. Andrew Foldi, as Schigolch, captured an eternal, weary, agelessly elderly edge in his performance.

The production by John Dexter is rather diffuse. On the stunning Jocelyn Herbert sets, Dexter's direction is cramped, awkward, and quite cold.

It will all look wonderful on TV (PBS, Saturday, 8 p.m., 'Live from the Met,' check local listings for premiere and repeats), because it is cast with a team of vivid actors.

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