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Lola Lulu Chicago






 -by Lynn Becker

[November 10, 2008] - In opera and on film, in a pair of masterworks, two of drama's greatest femme fatales duke it out in Chicago for your benefit - together for One Week Only!

The Magic of America, by Marion Mahony Griffin


Laaaadies - and - gentlemen! © Danny Newman

In this corner! . . . representing the North side, child of Ireland, lover of students, composers and kings, dancer, actress, aerialist, Protestant apologist, the Countess of Landsfield and Queen of the Mammoth Circus: Max Ophüls' Lola Montes!

And in this corner! . . . representing the West side, seed of Frank Wedekind's fevered imagination, nurtured by Mahler and Schoenberg, beloved of composers, painters, countesses and high school gymnasts, murderess of newspaper editors, victim of Jack the ripper: Alban Berg's Lulu!

THIS WEEK ONLY! you have an amazing to opportunity to spend quality time with not one, but two of the most legendary femme fatales in the history of the dramatic arts!

Lola Montes, a film by Max Orphuls, released by Rialto PicturesBoth rolled into town last Friday. First came Lola Montes, Max Ophüls' legendary, sumptuous 1955 epic film, from 1955, on view at the Music Box Theater only through Thursday. Then, a bit later in the evening, there was the debut of Paul Curran's production of Berg's Lulu at Lyric Opera, conducted by Andrew Davis, with Marlis Petersen in the title role. There's another performance at 7:00 P.M. tonight, Monday, November 10th, with five more through a Sunday, November 30th matinee.

At first glance, the two works couldn't be more different. Lulu, first performed in 1937, is actually the rawer work, a deliberately lurid compost of sex and death awash with Berg's brilliant, complex music, evoking a world that has gone beyond overripeness to a full state of rot. Ophüls' film, which came 18 years later, Lulu, by Alban Berg, at Lyric Opera of Chicagois, at least on its surface, a much more traditionally romantic, opulent production, using swirling camera movements and an irresistibly seductive and masterful use of color to create images of often breathtaking beauty.

Both works have reached their current state only after a prolonged and painful gestation. In the case of Lulu, Berg left the opera unfinished at the time of his death in 1935. Although he had completed the final, third act in short score and had even left indications for the scoring, his widow Helene blocked completion of the work for over forty years, until her own death in 1976, with rare performances of the opera shearing off abruptly at the end of the second act. It would not be until 1979, with the contribution of Fredrich Cerha in finishing the third act, that Lulu was finally heard complete.

Lola Montes, the most expensive French film to that time, made its highly anticipated debut in the prime Christmas season of 1955, to a censorious reaction from audiences and critics alike. Stephanie Argy, in her fascinating article on the film's restoration in the American Cinematographer, writes "as Ophüls and his son, Marcel, watched in despair, the audience streamed out of the theater, warning away those waiting in line for the nextLola Montes, a film by Max Ophuls, released by Rialto Pictures screening." Panicked producers slashed the film to ribbons, cutting half an hour and re-editing Ophüls' exquisite flashback narrative into a chronological lockstep. It didn't help. As Sam Goldwyn once famously remarked, "If the public doesn't want to come, there's no stopping them." In 1957, shortly after the release of the murderously recut version, Ophüls died. Lola was his last completed film.

In 2007, a campaign began to recreate Ophüls' original vision. Over a laborious 18 months, film elements from three different sources, often disastrously damaged, were digitally remastered to create the astonishing film now on display at the Music Box, probably as close as we will ever get to the work Ophüls saw at that Paris premiere over half a century ago. (You can also download a great podcast featuring the team that created the restoration here.)

In the conception and treatment of their respective heroines, there are striking parallels between the two works. Berg begins his opera with Lulu as a carnal circus beast, introduced by a ringmaster as part of his human menagerie. Lola is also introduced by a ringmaster, played by Peter Ustinov, as the star attraction of the Mammoth Circus, in what is one of the most spectacular opening sequences to be found in film. In many productions, Lulu may find herself, in her first scene, put on display in a cage. Lola, entombed in a huge golden hoop skirt, is lifted and placed on a moving platform like a splendid centerpiece on a banquet table. Both of these introductions are framing devices that not only set the scene, but establish the tone of the creator towards their creation.

Both Lulu and Lola are infamous for their unending succession of lovers, and for possessing a seductive beauty no man can resist. So obsessed with Lulu is Dr. Schön Lulu, by Alban Berg, at Lyric Opera of Chicagothat he is powerless to resist her command to write the letter to his far more respectable fiancee, breaking off their engagement. When various Bavarian institutions put the screws to King Ludwig to break off his liaison with the scandalous Lola, she simply persuades him to shut them down. In Berg's hothouse world, Schön's submission leads to wild jealousy, derangement and putting a gun to Lulu, who in short order has him asking for her to kill him, instead. (Lulu complies.) King Ludwig, on other hand, is finally forced to abdicate, but is allowed to live to a ripe old age.

Although the basics of each work are quite similar, the tone is radically different. Berg's Lulu is clearly a product of the prophetically violent and chaotic 1920's. Ophüls' Lola, coming after the orgy of death and destruction of World War II, is an elegy for a lost era. Berg's circus is perverse and disturbing, a menagerie of tortured and menacing souls; Ophüls' is an enthralling explosion of color and spectacle, where even Ustinov's midget sidekick and the diminutive roustabouts, wrapped head to toe in orange like oompa-loompa's veering towards a latex fetish, are revealed to be regular mensch's making their way through an indifferent world as best they can. The appetites of Berg's characters are desperate, frequently fatal. Those of Ophüls, comfortably human.

The thing that is most striking today, of course, is the fact that these two intense portraits of women were created entirely by men, and the women at their center are both Lulu, by Alban Berg, at Lyric Opera of Chicagoincredibly opaque. Lulu's character is defined entirely by her relations with men. She has no perceptible inner life. She seems to exist observing her life from the outside. Over the men who lust after her, she has invincible power. Over her own life and fate, she has none. In the case of Lola, much of the insubstantiality of the title character has been ascribed to the limitations of Martina Carole as an actress. (She was forced on Ophüls by his producers, nervous about their $1 million-plus investment, because she was a proven box office star.) But Ophüls' Lola, as much as Berg's Lulu, is to the largest extent a reflection of their creator's desires.

It's unmistakable that both creators, Berg and Ophüls, not only had a deep empathy for their central creation, but insert themselves into the scenario via the character of their strongest protector and most father-like paramour. Lulu speaks of Dr. Schön as the one man she truly loved, as Lola does of Ludwig. Both are men of power and affluence, liberally, even recklessly, expended to Lola and Lulu's benefit. The later scenes with Lola and Ludwig are portraits of warm domesticity, those of Lulu and Schön disintegrate in their lack of it.

What rescues Lola from its often static dramatics is Ophüls mastery of scene setting and camera. His characters may appear indifferent to the point of lethargy - the only really Lola Montes, a film by Max Ophuls, from Rialto Picturesviolent character is Lola's drunkard first husband - but emotion bursts through in the impassioned movement of the camera within sumptuous interiors and landscapes of almost transcendental beauty. In Lulu, it is Berg's incredible music that redeems the opera's brutal and sordid storyline. The musically adept will talk you to death about the brilliant way Berg deploys Schoenberg's twelve-tone system to his highly individual aural ends, but even an untutored listener can hear how, through even its most jagged and jarring passages, Berg's score has a throughline of profound longing and empathy soaring above the wretched dramatic landscape.

Lulu and Lola are two of the greatest masterpieces of 20th century dramatic art. To see either - and with opera or film, on DVD, even Blu-Ray, doesn't really count - is a rare event. The last revival of Lola, when Andrew Sarris in admitted hyperbole called it the greatest film of all time, was in the mid-1960's. Lulu is revived only every decade or two. To be able to see them concurrently, to compare and contemplate two great artists' take on a parallel theme, is an opportunity that probably will never be repeated. Lola Montes is at the Music Box through Thursday, November 13th. Don't miss it. Lulu is at Lyric Opera through November 30. Take out a loan, or break open the piggy bank, but go.


Of Wedekind's real-life inspiration for Lulu, we have little information. Whomever she may have been, she appears to have never come forward to speak for herself. Lola Montes, however, was a real person, and of a far more tempestuous spirit than Martina Carole's subdued portrayal. As chronicled in numerous articles in the New York Times archives, Lola comes off as acutely sensitive to the multitude of affronts inflicted on her, and ferocious in her own defense. It's only appropriate that we leave to her our final words . . .

In 1851, she is writing a letter to the editor, who she describes as being presented to her as "a good little fellow, and published a good little paper, though you did fail as a play Lola Montezwriter". She is responding to the newspaper's attack on having a person of her dubious morality and talent making visits to Boston's public schools. "You think it improper, sir" she writes, "for a danseuse to visit one of your public institutions! . . . Do you think, Sir, that one of those children would have had an impure or improper thought connected with my visit if it had not been put into their heads by yourself? Believe me, Sir, there is often more impurity in the mind of the critic than in the object of his criticism. . . Fie on you, sir! for an ill-bred snarling cur, unworthy to stand at the portal of public opinion."

In 1853, she's in a New Orleans court, defending herself against charges of kicking a theater prompter, cross-examining the house manager: "Didn't you come behind the scenes in your shirttail one night when I was playing in your theatre, in a very immodest manner? And you know, Mr. Placide, that you're far from being a handsome man!" At another point, she testifies, "Mr. Henning is my agent - not my protector. I would have you know, sir, that I am my own protector." (Applause is recorded at erupting in the courtroom.)

Towards the end of her life, beauty faded, without money or prospects, Lola immersed herself in charitable works and giving lectures, including one, with the title of Rome, to help raise funds for the rebuilding of the Church of Good Shepherd. Her clashes with the Catholics of Ludwig's court had left her a fervent anti-Jesuit. "The Catholic Church she regarded as the product of an effete civilization" the Times reported, "It was to Protestantism, she declared, that were due the five great facts of the time: Steamboats, Railroads, Telegraphs, Freedom of the Press and the American Republic."

Lola concluded her remarks by noting, "The advertisements have informed you that the proceeds of this lecture are to be given to the REV. RALPH HOYT to aid him building his free church for the poor. The papers have also apprised you that some of the clergy have cast reflections upon the worthy rector for his willingness to receive the sum which your patronage of this lecture gives. This is certainly a piece of bigotry and intolerance and cruelty to the poor, and of meddlesome impertinence, which I certainly before have never witnessed - aye, even in the most illiberal Catholic countries of the world. (Loud applause) Who are these men who would bar you and me from doing a good action? . . . It is then reserved for me, humble as I am, to read these blind bigots a lesson, and to tell them they are not Christians but Pharisees! They belong, I think, to the same class of hypocrites who condemned the Saviour because he ate and drank with publicans and sinners.

. . . I am going to Europe for some time, in a few days, and when I come back, which I certainly will do (loud applause) - it may be I will give a course of lectures to raise a fund to send missionaries to Christianize these clerical Pharisees (great applause and laughter) these Pharisees, ladies and gentlemen, who had rather that the poor and destitute should not have the Gospel preached, or even kind words said to them, than that the means should be furnished by the patronage of your very humble servant."

Lola Montes died in 1861, just short of her 40th birthday.

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© 2008 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

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