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Saturday, June 25, 2016

Ronald Chase | Lulu



Note by Douglas Messerli


Soon after seeing the MET production of Lulu, I discussed it with my friend Tom Roberdeau who loaned me a copy of the film by Ronald Chase based on the original Wedekind original Lulu plays, but also incorporating music from the Berg opera. Knowing nothing of the Chase production—indeed the film was not permitted distribution by the Alban Berg estate—I postponed watching the DVD for some weeks, feeling it could not possible come up to the standards of the opera production I had just seen.

      Finally watching it in late June of 2016, I have to admit my fears were somewhat correct; the film is not as remarkable as the opera nor the 1929 film, also based on the Wedekind plays, by the German director G. W. Pabst (see My Year 2001). Nonetheless, it was a fascinating footnote to the opera and the Pabst movie, and what I hadn’t known is that Roberdeau and his brother John were major performers in the work.
     Chase, an American artist, photographer, and independent filmmaker, also worked extensively in designing opera and theater, often with the noted director Frank Cosaro. He began his career as a dancer, performing with the José Limón Dance Company, but turned to opera design in the early 1970s. Although I did not recall it at the time of Roberdeau’s loan of the disk, Howard and I had previously seen Chase’s design at the opening of Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center 1971  production of Ginastera's Beatrix Cenci, a piece that, at some point, I shall have to revisit.
     In 1975 Chase, using film and projection, designed an innovative production of Berg’s Lulu for the Houston Opera. His 1978 film, although using elements of the opera, however, attempted to blend the Wedekind original with the tropes of silent film (including intertitles), with just a few passages from the opera. 
     Shot very dark, through gauzy scrims and even smoke, so that one must almost struggle to enter Lulu’s sinful world, Chase’s actors (Elisa Leonelli as Lulu, Norma Leistiko as Countess Geschwitz, John Roberdeau as Alwa Schon, Paul Shernar Ludwig Schon, and Tom Roberdeau  as Jack the Ripper) seldom speak, instead acting out a redacted version of the play with often abstractly sexual gestures which are both flirtatious and lustful. Particularly the last scene, in which Jack actually is seen spreading Lulu’s raised legs before he savagely rips her to death, reveals the extremes of the central character, using sex as a way to accomplish her rise in society while also employing her body simply as a way in which to survive. 
      The film might have benefited by a bit fewer of these abstractions and more of verbal or, at least, vocal interchanges between the figures; at times it almost appears that we are being presented a kind of summary instead of the actual narrative. Yet, it is an interesting commentary, more importantly for those who have not yet seen the Pabst film or the Berg opera and would like an introduction to complexities of these works. 
      As I note, however, I was delighted to be able to see this little-known cinematic representation of Wedekind’s great plays.

Los Angeles, June 25, 2016

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