Die Soldaten

He was invalided
out in 1942, but that was quite enough to give him a lifetimeís horror of
the brutalities of war and what militarism does to society (especially German
society). This was not a new idea, though the Nazi Era saw the worst, the
apotheosis, of it, and there had been protests before ó one of them,
The Soldiers, an eighteenth-century play by J.M.R. Lenz, is a
didactic fable that shows the notion of military glamour corrupting young
people, relations between the sexes and between the classes, and politics.

Zimmerman turned the play into an opera according to twelve-tone
principles but with many additional threads from other arts, intending, it
seems, to outdo Wagner in its melding of different arts into ìtotal
theater,î with opera, a 110-piece orchestra with special percussion and
jazz units, spoken theater, ballet, film, television, circus, electronic
music, tape and sound techniques to tell a tight, unpleasant, unglamorous
little story. Comparisons to Wozzeck are obvious ó letís just
say Wozzeck is a whole lot shorter and more focused. (Wozzeck is
also based on a far earlier play.) Die Soldaten premiered in Cologne
in 1965. Having said what he had to say, Zimmerman killed himself in 1970.

Stagings of Die Soldaten must always be special events ó the
work is not for small companies or repertory productions. The singers have to
be first-rate musicians and first-rate actors, the orchestra huge and expert,
the special effects cannot easily be fudged. For this yearís Lincoln Center
Festival, the Ruhr Triennial brought their 2007 staging to the Park Avenue
Armory, home base when it was built in the 1880s of the most fashionable
regiment in town and thus an ideal space for the purpose, both in terms of
its block-long size and the military trappings, which have recently been
spectacularly refurbished and will keep you agog for the intermissions of any
event you attend there. (The City Opera hopes to use it for the New York
premiere of Messiaenís St. FranÁois díAssise in 2010.)

As an event ó as a theatrical experience ó there can hardly be two
opinions of Die Soldatenís success: It is overwhelming,
fascinating theater, a live performance designed with cinematic technique.
The impossibly huge room (stretching from near Park Avenue to Lexington) was
given a T-shaped stage ó the crossbar at the Lexington end, the narrow
centerpiece down the center to the seats. The orchestra played on one side,
the percussion ensemble on the other. The audience, a thousand of us, sat on
rising seats at the Park Avenue end, but our seats were on rollers on six
train tracks. For close-ups on the crossbar, we were silently brought east to
it; then we were silently moved backwards as scene after scene unfolded on
the central stage, where characters were sang while walking, sometimes
through each otherís ìroomsî on a stage set with sparse evocative
furnishings. A Turkish bath for the soldiers, a countessís salon, a snowy
street, the steppes of Russiaís battlefields were thus evoked. There was no
interruption between scenes; the continuity made the swiftness of the sordid
story of a young girlís descent from innocently accepting presents from an
officer, to his kept woman, to everybodyís whore, to freezing beggar all
the more devastating and, at least in this version, inevitable.

No doubt the horrors of war (between men and women, as well as between
armies) can be affectingly presented in melodious ways ó Prokofievís
War and Peace comes to mind, and few operas end with more quietly
devastating effect than Tchaikowskyís Mazeppa, as the heroine,
having gone mad, lullabies a dying man she believes to be her lost baby. But
war in the mid-twentieth century has been savage beyond the stretch of
melody, and seemed to Zimmermann to call for unhummable music. Yet he did not
make the mistake of many of his atonal contemporaries ó his singers do not
simply screech at the top of their lungs to express intense feeling, but use
the full range of their voices so that subtler shades of meaning can get
across. Conversations in this opera do not turn into set pieces ó lovers
sing at cross purposes, a trio for three arguing women never blends but
leaves each of them in her separate world. This is naturalistic and
appropriate, but leaves one sometimes wondering if opera is really the medium
for Zimmermannís vision ó certainly not traditional opera, but then
Die Soldaten is hardly a traditional opera.

It would be amusing to consider what a composer a hundred or two hundred
years earlier would have done when setting Lenzís play: Charlotteís folk
song of broken hearts in the opening scene would have a recognizable melody
so that it could return as her sisterís life descended step by step on the
social scale, from girlfriend to mistress to whore to beggar. The loutish
soldiersí reflections on the honor of women (or lack of it) would be a
merry chorus instead of a collection of brutal shards of tone. Desportes, the
ìnobleî lout who seduces Marie and gives her to his gamekeeper for rape
when she becomes too importunate, would have time for a drinking song before
Marieís old boyfriend poisoned him (as, brutally, melodramatically, he
does). The trio of three arguing women who never listen to each other would
be sublime in the hands of a Mozart.

We can be touched by such methods, but Zimmerman didnít want to touch us
ó he wanted to batter us, to shove our faces in it, to eliminate the
distance that art necessarily allows for, to make us feel war. He
wanted big faces on movie screens to demonstrate the horrors heíd scene at
the Front. David Pountneyís production, though the lighting effects (by
Wolfgang Gˆbbel) are subtly brilliant (wavering spirals over the action of a
drunken party; shadows that swallow characters when the story has no further
use for them), shoves us into, and among, its lurid story by having us zoom
across the theater into the girlsí bedroom and the soldierís mess, then
pulling us back for scenes of perspective or of long walks or a nightmare
ìballetî sequence in which the ever less clothed, less conscious Marie is
tossed from one pig-masked black-tied brute to another. This cinematic
variety of perspective makes it easier to notice, for instance, that
Marieís clumsy, childish walk in Act I has become a kept womanís flounce
by Act III, and for a devastating final image to have her ó rejected in the
snow by her father, who does not recognize her ó staggering down endless,
featureless streets into a steppe laden with snow-covered dead bodies,
recalling Germanyís Russian campaign of World War II.

But what would Zimmermann have done with his brittle, savage, shocking
style of composition if, by chance, any of his characters had agreed with
each other? If two people had shared love, for example (all the yearning is
one-sided here)? Itís difficult to see how that would work in his system,
and one admires his cleverness in designing a libretto where it never
happens: this is all confrontation, cross-purposes, asides and social
cruelties. Verdi and Mozart and Wagner could set confrontation beguilingly,
but that is not Zimmermannís intention. The tonal texture did not outrage
(some people left at the intermission ó a pity, as the second half was the
more exciting) but it did not please, soothe, appeal ó it is not meant to.
This is art designed to explicate brutality. I enjoyed the intrusive
off-kilter atonal jazz band in the banquet scene; another effect of some
charm was a percussive rumble like distant freight trains that turned out to
be an uncomposed thunderstorm breaking on the Armory roof.

The singers sang with microphones (necessary in the Armory, and suggested
by the composer). Microphones can cover lack of volume but not disguise other
sins. Let it be said that none of them sounded as if this fantastically
difficult music put them out unduly, and Iíd be very interested to hear
what they can do unamplified and with more gracious sounds to produce. Their
acting was superb across the board, and went as far as the manner of
movement, the stance adopted in different social situations (a countess alone
does not move like a countess in front of social inferiors; a bourgeois boy
stands differently when he has enlisted as an officerís orderly).

Claudia Barainsky was Marie, whose descent is the trajectory of the opera,
and her changeable, corruptible moods ó innocent flirtatiousness, hauteur
when criticized, wracked with jealousy, despair, numbness ó guided every
phrase as well as every step. As the opera opens, she is bursting with life;
as it ends she is empty ó and every step, every sound, is part of that
picture. Claudia Mahnke sang her sister in a way to contrast at each step ó
echoing but adjusting her sisterís flightiness with caution, as if to show
us that safety could have been an option. Helen Field was splendid as the
countess willing to save Marie ó as long as Marie agrees not to seduce the
countessís son.

Among the men, the most striking picture and the most interesting sounds,
ingratiating, contemptuous, amorous, disgusting, came from Peter Hoare as the
officer who corrupts Marie and ó in the operaís stagiest, most satisfying
but unrealistic moment ó is murdered by her old fiancÈ. Kay Stiefermann
was almost sympathetic as a less amoral but less intelligent officer.

Steven Sloane, aided by a dozen close-circuit televisions, kept musicians
and singers and machinery in step through a grueling night to the final
shattering tableau.

Is this sort of multiple-effect total-art-work the wave of some
budget-unconscious future? Is it necessary to abandon melody and the art of
unamplified singing to achieve it? Such questions arise but do not interrupt
the presentation of one of the worldís great theatrical and moral

John Yohalem

image_description=Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Die Soldaten
product_title=Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Die Soldaten
product_by=Marie: Claudia Barainsky; Charlotte: Claudia Mahnke; Mme Wesener: Hanna Schwarz; Mme Stolzius: Kathryn Harries; Countess de la Roche: Helen Field; Wesener: Johann Tilli; Stolzius: Claudio Otelli; Desportes: Peter Hoare; Major Mary: Kay Stiefermann; Count de la Roche: Andreas Conrad. Bochum Symphony conducted by Steven Sloane. Directed by David Pountney. Ruhr Triennial Production of 2007, restaged at the Park Avenue Armory, New York, for the Lincoln Center Festival. Performance of July 9.