'Die Soldaten': A Strangely Unmoving Event

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 7, 2008

NEW YORK -- Outside the Park Avenue Armory, a bevy of security staff waved taxis to the curb with lighted wands, like the ground crew at an airport, while people in the crowd around the steps brandished "Need 1 Ticket" signs or mumbled their requests at passersby with confidential hopelessness. Inside, the huge space was filled with metal scaffolding supporting seating for almost 1,000 people, mounted on railroad-like tracks calibrated to hairbreadth measurements to enable the whole structure to move the audience back and forth soundlessly along a runway-like stage.

It was, in short, an Event. On Saturday night, the Lincoln Center Festival opened a production of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's monumental opera "Die Soldaten," a huge-scale 12-tone work that was hailed after its 1965 premiere as the most important German opera since Berg's "Lulu," and has not been all that frequently performed since, certainly not in this country. (Sarah Caldwell gave the American premiere in Boston in 1982; New York City Opera did it in 1991.) The current production, by David Pountney, originated at the German festival RuhrTriennale in 2006; it was brought here at undisclosed but immense financial cost.

The attendant buzz might have gratified the composer, since "Die Soldaten" very much aspires to be an event, however it is performed. Zimmermann wrote for huge forces -- a 110-piece orchestra with a massive percussion section, and a cast of more than a dozen principals -- and called for multiple performing spaces and ensembles, combined with film montages (omitted in this production), in a quest to create a work that plays simultaneously in the past, present and future. Today, the opera seems a relic of its time, fueled by large but rather amorphous ideas, its 12-tone score representing the height of mid-century orthodoxy, and oozing fury. This is a work that is ready to rebel, even if it is not quite sure against what. (To quote Brando in "The Wild One," "Whaddya got?")

Given its date of creation, its title and its reputation as a dark masterpiece, one might expect the piece to be a powerful antiwar statement. In fact, it is based on an 18th-century play by Jakob Lenz, and the force of its rage is turned squarely on bourgeois society. The opera is about the downfall of Marie, a pretty young woman whose head is turned by the attention showered on her by a number of soldiers -- it's "Manon" meets "Wozzeck." (The Wozzeck figure is Marie's faithful lover, Stolzius, a battered Everyman who joins the army to follow his fickle beloved and finally murders the man responsible for ruining her.)

"Wozzeck"-like, too, are the organizational principles behind the work's numerous scenes, each one constructed as a specific musical form: toccata, chaconne, etc. This appearance of rigor, and the idea that such a massive 12-tone score represents something intellectually formidable, as well as a scale that makes the opera too expensive and challenging to mount often, have helped lead to "Die Soldaten's" reputation as a great and powerful work. Adding to its dark drama is the fact that its troubled composer killed himself five years after its premiere.

But in fact, the piece is not all that sophisticated. Certainly this music sounds like the expression of a broken, angry century, complete with a range of quotations, from jazz to Bach, woven into its fabric. And the score juxtaposes massed power with delicate, almost chamber-music writing in places. But many of its effects are obvious to the point of being trite: a touch of bells here; the eerie, ancient sound of an organ there; and at the end, the heavy tread of marching feet, eclipsed by a scream, then blackout. In fact, one reason for the work's reputation may be that it makes this brand of music accessible through dramatic obviousness combined with sheer brute force. It is strong stuff, but not especially strong drama; the characters are drawn so sketchily that it can be difficult to figure out exactly what is going on.

Of course, a strong production would have helped. The exorbitant outlay for the movable seats proved a tremendously expensive gimmick: Pountney could not think of anything more creative to do than move the audience to a different part of the runway for each scene. The seats were very close to the runway, which was supposed to create a sense of intimacy, but Pountney's direction never moved past the approximate gestures of standard-issue opera spectacle. In a scene in which Marie is flirting with her first soldier suitor, Baron Desportes, the baron snatches her quill pen and holds it just out of her reach; as the two sang floods of coloratura, the soprano kept flinging herself at the pen, in a brand of bad opera pantomime that should have died out years ago. So much for cutting-edge stage direction.

Nor was the conducting able to bring out the best of the work: Steven Sloane, the American music director of the Bochumer Symphoniker, kept a heavy beat but was little more than a traffic cop. His orchestra knew the score, yet he was unable to do more than keep it all moving.

Just learning the music is so difficult that it is hard to carp at the singers, particularly when the director was not giving them very much assistance. The vocal level was that of a respectable regional production. Claudia Mahnke, as Marie's sister, showed a strong, warm mezzo; and Kay Stiefermann as the officer Mary, who ends up as Stolzius's boss, was an effective singing actor. As Marie, Claudia Barainsky stayed atop a fiendishly difficult and long role; Stolzius remained, as he must, something of a cipher, despite Claudio Otelli's attempt to force the role to life. Hanna Schwarz, the wonderful veteran mezzo, had a small part as Marie's grandmother, but was not given a way to make much of it.

The work's soldiers never lift a finger in battle; Pountney put their first scene in a bathhouse, with their naked torsos emerging from square holes at one end of the stage. The real tension is between the hypocrites who uphold society's status quo -- be they soldiers or parents -- and their victims. Pountney hammered this point home by having Marie's pivotal rape enacted by a number of men dressed as Santa Claus: She is violated by the ultimate figure of warm authority. It was as obvious as the rest of the piece, as obvious as the contrast between the huge spaces of the Armory and the intimate drama onstage, and it only helped trivialize a work that could, for all its failings, have been served far better.

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