Barbara Hannigan

BH

Photo credit: Musacchio and Ianniellos.

Having been spellbound by the great Barbara Hannigan singing Let me tell you, as well as her f-f-flabbergasting Gepopo, I just attended another LSO concert in which she both sang and conducted in Berg and Berg-tinged Gershwin (programme notes here).

I became immersed in Berg’s first opera Wozzeck in my teens, but at last I got to hear Hannigan in a suite from Lulu, one of her signature roles. While only featuring two brief but mesmerizing arias, it gives a taster for the complexities of Lulu’s psyche.

Lulu has long seemed to embody all the inherited archetypes of diva/femme fatale, madonna/whore, victim, elfin waif, destroyer/destroyed (see also Madonna and McClary[1] and the “cute psychopath” of Killing Eve), both in the original Wedekind plays and Pabst’s 1929 (silent!) film Pandora’s box:

Hang on—these were all created by men…

All these myths may have gone largely unchallenged until quite recently, but Hannigan doesn’t buy it. So despite Lulu’s common image as abused, manipulated, and degraded, Hannigan finds her inspiring “as a musician, an actor, and a human being”, with her “instinctive emotional intelligence that tends to drive the people around her up the wall”; rather like her remoulding of Ophelia, she regards Lulu as the architect of her own destiny—angry, resistant, and triumphant. As Paul Griffiths wrote,

Hannigan sees her as a spirit of freedom, who breaks loose from the plays, the opera, and the films in which she would seem to be contained. Refusing taming or limits of any kind, she scorns death, even while longing for it. Murdered in one scenario, she simply finds herself another. She is a deity with innumerable avatars.

Hannigan makes her case brilliantly here—describing her passionate relationship with Lulu as well as her her own Stockholm syndrome and survivor guilt, and unpacking gender issues:

Now I welcome new visions, and changing reception history, but I’m still not sure we can simply “celebrate” the lives of women like Lulu without acknowledging the tragedy of their situation in societies where they are constantly hampered—and without keeping the iniquities of patriarchy to the fore (cf. China). Surely the role model here is not Lulu but Hannigan’s vision of her.

She ended the concert with an arrangement of Gershwin’s Girl crazy suite. At first one might think, uh-oh—not another cheesy crossover in the vein of “Dame Kiri Sings the Sex Pistols Greatest Hits by Candlelight“? Far from it: Hannigan “wanted to have a suite with songs from Gershwin musicals, but to look at them through the prism of the Second Viennese School, and especially from the perspective of Lulu and the Countess Geschwitz.”

As Griffiths observes, the link is by no means far-fetched:

Gershwin admired Berg and welcomed the opportunity of a meeting when the American was in Vienna in the spring of 1928. This was a year before Berg began work on Lulu, with its jazz-age touches, and two years before Gershwin was writing songs for Girl crazy. It might be hard to hear Berg’s influence in Gershwin’s own score, but that can be arranged. You just have to find an arranger.

Bill Elliott, who won a Tony award in 2015 for his orchestration of Gershwin’s music in a new show, An American in Paris, was an obvious first choice, and created a 13-minute score on which one could imagine the two composers had worked side by side. Berg sits back to admire the course of a melody Gershwin is writing, then leans forward to add harmonies here, a wandering counterpoint there. *

So the resulting suite, transforming But not for me, Embraceable you, and I got rhythm[2] makes a stimulating and exhilarating piece that inevitably gets a standing ovation. Here’s an earlier performance:

With her magical voice, her expressive arms, her whole body, Hannigan totally inhabits all her roles.

BH2

Photo credit: Jag Gundu.

Now we can also admire Hannigan’s recent Vienna fin-de-siècle CD, including Zemlinsky, Berg, and Alma Mahler.

 

* For good measure, a couple of quaint vignettes on Gershwin’s friendship with Berg’s teacher Schoenberg in the USA:

Gershwin asked Schoenberg—whom he also painted—for composition lessons. Schoenberg refused, reportedly saying “I would only make you a bad Schoenberg, and you’re such a good Gershwin already.”

And in a charming foretaste of the Monty Python Beethoven LP,

Gershwin enjoyed playing tennis with Schoenberg once a week. Gershwin’s playing was described as “nervous” and “nonchalant”, “relentless”, and “chivalrous”—while Schoenberg was “overly eager” and “choppy”.

 

[1] Indeed, Leo Treitler compares Madonna and Lulu in “The Lulu character and the character of Lulu”, ch.10 of his Music and the historical imagination (1989). For a general introduction to the opera, see Alex Ross, The rest is noise, pp.224–31.

[2] Hiromi‘s manic piano version of the latter is amazing, but I always fantasize about a Bulgarian aksak version…

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