In William Kentridge’s production of Alban Berg’s LULU at the Metropolitan Opera, consciousness comes, hesitantly, into being, fragments, reconfigures itself, then shatters again, and is still, hours later, in uncertain consonance with the exterior world. It’s a completely realized work of Expressionist theater, the fin de siècle form that portrayed an individual perspective at odds with organization of the world. Lulu, created by the playwright Wedekind and immortalized by the pert bangs and razor points of Louise Brooks, is such a figure. What the world she moves in approves isn’t a virtuous life but its social representation; only upon exposure is sin punished, and disempowered scapegoats bear the brunt. Lulu’s independence and sexual freedom stigmatize her in a society whose values she despises even as she depends upon its hypocrisy for the life she leads.

Expressionism understood how modern societies impose themselves upon – and even destroy – the individuals they claim to value. There’s an irony in Kentridge’s version that was there, germinally, at the birth of the movement. It is through technology that modernity molds the person, yet that same technology facilitates the expression of the alienation it creates. Kentridge’s elaborate technological resources enable a constant shift in the projected images, which are textual, photographic, and painterly, the detritus of society impinging like chatter on the nervous system. Some of the images take the form of real human bodies: Joanna Dudley and Andrea Fabi in live performance, hovering on the edge of the visual field like memories of Weimar, or silent film, or Viennese decadence. Dudley in particular, whether tossed like a discarded plaything into the cabinet of the piano or stalking Lulu like a shade, darkens the action like an indelible brushstroke.

Marlis Petersen as Lulu is the designated recipient of this cultural wasteheap. Lulu is not so easily reduced to femme fatale as might be expected, and Petersen will have none of that in any case. The German soprano is made and conditioned, by birth, training, and physique, for the role, an operatic athlete whose legs on a divan are as expressive as her voice; she’s as much actor and dancer as singer, a triple threat to any diminishment of Lulu as a person. That the hypocritical strength of the culture she defies and manipulates, will, finally, extinguish her, after driving her from Vienna to Paris to London, where she meets the knife of Jack the Ripper (sung here by Johan Reuter, who is killed, earlier, as Schön, by his now victim Lulu), validates its demonic power, for it kills the strongest amongst it.

The Ripper might have been an Expressionist hero himself, in some other drama, for murder is, in the genre, the perverse result of overbearing convention. Lulu commits one; so too the protagonist of Treadwell’s Machinal; one thinks, also, of the child killer in M  and the vampire in Nosferatu. What they do can’t be countenanced, but they stand, in a conformist world, apart. It is, in the end, one’s own consciousness that is challenged by this stimulating piece of theater. The windows of perception are multivalent and the view refracts through each: Kentridge’s stagecraft, Petersen’s portrayal, the insistent baton of Lothar Koenigs. Berg’s twelve-tone music is Expressionistic in its own right, jagged and sharp, and it affects the voices in that way too, an aural counterpart to the visual imagery. Yet it is those voices, and the sensuous physicality at their base, that dominate, even as the sharpest among them meets the knife. For it is the point of Expressionism that the world that shapes us is reshaped by how we see it. LULU is the world clipped into pieces and reassembled by its maker, who is Lulu herself, or is it us?

LULU plays through Dec. 3 at the Metropolitan Opera. For tickets and information, click here.

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