For the first time in ages, this year's Lowell House Opera is being performed outside of the Lowell House dining hall--which is fortunate for the dining hall.
The Agassiz Theater production of Alben Berg's Lulu is a grave disappointment. Berg's haunting psychodrama about a troubled woman and the people who terrorize her loses all its force in a production which could repel even the most serious of campus opera buffs.
But in fairness to the cast, we should note that Lulu is a very difficult opera. Composed in 1937 by Berg, a master of atonality, the opera's subject matter and complexity require that its performers have not only a wide vocal range, but also considerable acting skills.
That said, we should also note that the cast, under the stage direction of Laith Zawawi, does not even come close to succeeding. Most of the performers overact terribly, and the repeated violence, which is intended to startle the audience and evoke sympathy for the title character, is so overdone that it borders on the hysterical.
It is a shame since Lulu, based on two plays written by Frank Wedekind in the 19th century, has potential to be a disturbing commentary on sexual violence in modern society. It tells the story of Lulu and the psychological scars she accrues seeing husband after husband driven to violent death and being eventually consumed herself by her many suitors.
Despite the failure of the production as a whole, there are a few bright spots in the opera. Musical director David Eggar deserves a great deal of credit for adapting Berg's music for this production. By using a synthesizer in addition to the traditional orchestral instruments, Eggar retains the haunting, hypnotic spirit of Berg's composition while updating the music for today.
But the opera can succeed only when the music and acting complement each other. While the music in Lulu is certainly effective, its power is reduced substantially by the many poor performances by the cast.
A notable exception is Lulu, played by Maria Tegzes, a soprano from Holy Cross College who shines in the role. Her vocal range and control is impressive, and her dramatic interpretation of the character understated enough to make her a truly sympathetic character.
Jay D. Cope is also well-cast as Schigolch, the bum pretending to be Lulu's father. His his authoritative stage presence is matched by his clear vision of the role. Unfortunately, Cope and Tegzes are rarely on stage by themselves, and the rest of the cast tends to display a lower level of proficiency in their parts.
A perfect example is John Byrd as the painter who captures Lulu's image on canvas, then marries her after the death of her first husband (who dies of a stroke before he is able to appear on stage). Byrd's voice is only mediocre, and he overacts terribly, stumbling around stage like a man who is about to kill himself.
Ironically enough, Byrd's character does eventually kill himself. But death itself is not even enough to prevent Boyd from overacting--and off-stage, no less. When his character slits his throat, Byrd hollers into a backstage microphone for about 30 seconds. This is just to let everyone know that he is really dying. And though it is a relief to see Byrd go in the second scene, the thrill is short-lived. He unfortunately returns in the second act as a ghost.
At first glance, Wesley Ray Thomas seems perfectly cast as Lulu's third husband, Dr. Schoen. Tall and thin, with a frightening countenance and a powerful voice, Thomas seems ideally suited to the role of Schoen, a man both obsessed by Lulu and driven to dominate her.
But appearances can be deceiving. Although Thomas' voice does not disappoint, his acting does. His mannerisms seem unnatural, particularly when he struts awkwardly around the stage. And his eventual transformation from the dominator to the dominated is not convincing.
David Buttaro turns in an adequate performance as Alwa, Schoen's son and Lulu's fourth and final husband, but it is not nearly enough to salvage the rest of Lulu. The last time Buttaro performed at the Agassiz was in the performance It's Really Me, which has entered Harvard lore as arguably the worst show ever staged on campus. How Buttaro picks these shows is unclear, but he must regret the decisions.
There are a few other minor characters in the opera, too, who do little more than prance around on stage, making scary faces at each other and the audience.
There is a lot to be scared about in this production. Nearly everything in Lulu is too heavy and too complex for the performers in an uninspired opera not worth your time to see.