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Die Soldaten

This staging of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's supposedly unproduceable anti-war work is the opera event of the year.

By New York City
A scene from Die Soldaten
(© Hermann and Clärchen Baus)
A scene from Die Soldaten
(© Hermann and Clärchen Baus)
The opera event of the summer -- and probably or the entire year -- is the imported Ruhr Triennale production of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's supposedly unproduceable anti-war work, Die Soldaten, now playing a limited run at the Park Avenue Armory as the heralded centerpiece of this year's Lincoln Center Festival. To present this four-act 12-tone piece, adapted from Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz's 1776 play of the same name, Zimmermann wanted something so overwhelmingly multimedia that 12 separate stages, three orchestras, and screens on which shocking battle footage would be projected were just the crucial beginnings of an extensive wish list.

Although Zimmermann slimmed down his simultaneous-scene vision when he bowed the work in 1965, his pipe dream is now so closely realized by director David Pountney and Steven Sloane conducting the augmented Bochumer Symphoniker that what was once considered impossible to present is brought magnificently forth with the force of Athena emerging from the head of Zeus, in spite of some overwhelming stage gimmickry.

Set designer Robert Innes Hopkins is one of the undertaking's chief heroes, creating two sets of bleachers divided by a runway serving as the long base of a T-shaped stage on which the many Zimmermann scenes are played. Riding on lengthy tracks, the bleachers move slowly back and forth between two orchestra pits -- one exclusively for percussionists. As a result, the along-for-the-smooth-ride audience gets up close and personal with the singers, who perform in appropriately broad German Expressionist mode.

The simple story follows innocent Marie (Claudia Barainsky) from her gaily skipping days with sister Charlotte (Claudia Mahnke) to her stripping and tripping nights after being done wrong by the nobleman Desportes (Peter Hoare), field officer Mary (Kay Stiefermann), and any number of rapacious army men. She suffers this ignominy, despite the best efforts of her fancy goods merchant father Wesener (Johann Till), her jilted fiancé and eventual avenger Stolzius (Claudio Otelli) and the well-meaning if imperious Countess de la Roche (Helen Field). The Lenz-Zimmermann point seems to be that both the class system is insurmountable, and men -- whether idle soldiers or not -- are such pigs. Indeed, they're such pigs that when Marie is passed among them like a soiled handkerchief, costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca prescribes pig masks.

Of primary importance here should be the music and how it's played and sung. Congratulations first to Zimmermann, who's recognized that one aspect of 12-tone music is its ability to suggest profound anxiety. Under Sloane's guidance throughout, the strings issue piercing cries, the brass are obstreperous and in the final moments the military-like drumming is enough to make the stone-hearted want to slash their wrists. It's not Zimmermann's intention to make the singing easy on the cast. To a man and woman, however, they wend their ways skillfully through the spiky melodic lines while at the same time carrying out Pountney's stark and crushing tableaux. Of these sequences, none is more appropriately damning than Marie at fade-out staggering along the runway after her father has failed to recognize her.

But whereas Zimmermann's insistent music should be the production's raison d'etre, it's undermined by all the bleacher backing-and-forthing -- fortunately suspended for most of the second half -- which detracts from rather than enhances the opera's theatricality. In a scene where the at-ease soldiers regale themselves at a bathhouse, one bare-chested blowhard asks, "Just tell me what do people learn in the theater?" The bleacher-occupants might be tempted to respond that in theater, as in life, less can be more.


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