Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Die Soldaten

Bernd Alois Zimmermann was a sensitive, none too healthy 21-year-old music prodigy in 1939, when he was drafted into the German army. He was invalided out in 1942, but that was quite enough to give him a lifetime’s 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 — 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 serial principles but with many additional threads from other arts, intending, it seems, to outdo Wagner in its melding of different arts into “total theater,” 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 — let’s just say Wozzeck is a whole lot shorter and more focused. (Wozzeck is also based on a play of earlier date.) 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 — 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 year’s 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 Messiaen’s St. François d’Assise in 2010.)

As an event — as a theatrical experience — there can hardly be two opinions of Die Soldaten’s 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 — 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 other’s “rooms” on a stage set with sparse evocative furnishings. A Turkish bath for the soldiers, a countess’s salon, a snowy street, the steppes of Russia’s battlefields were thus evoked. There was no interruption between scenes; the continuity made the swiftness of the sordid story of a young girl’s descent from innocently accepting presents from an officer, to his kept woman, to everybody’s 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 — Prokofiev’s War and Peace comes to mind, and few operas end with more quietly devastating effect than Tchaikowsky’s 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 — 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 — 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 Zimmermann’s vision — 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 Lenz’s play: Charlotte’s folk song of broken hearts in the opening scene would have a recognizable melody so that it could return as her sister’s life descended step by step on the social scale, from girlfriend to mistress to whore to beggar. The loutish soldiers’ 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 “noble” 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 Marie’s 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 didn’t want to touch us — 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 he’d scene at the Front. David Pountney’s production, though the lighting effects (by Wolfgang Göbbel) 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 girls’ bedroom and the soldier’s mess, then pulling us back for scenes of perspective or of long walks or a nightmare “ballet” 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 Marie’s clumsy, childish walk in Act I has become a kept woman’s flounce by Act III, and for a devastating final image to have her — rejected in the snow by her father, who does not recognize her — staggering down endless, featureless streets into a steppe laden with snow-covered dead bodies, recalling Germany’s 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)? It’s 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 Zimmermann’s intention. The tonal texture did not outrage (some people left at the intermission — a pity, as the second half was the more exciting) but it did not please, soothe, appeal — 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 I’d 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 officer’s orderly).

Claudia Barainsky was Marie, whose descent is the trajectory of the opera, and her changeable, corruptible moods — innocent flirtatiousness, hauteur when criticized, wracked with jealousy, despair, numbness — guided every phrase as well as every step. As the opera opens, she is bursting with life; as it ends she is empty — and every step, every sound, is part of that picture. Claudia Mahnke sang her sister in a way to contrast at each step — echoing but adjusting her sister’s 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 — as long as Marie agrees not to seduce the countess’s 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 — in the opera’s stagiest, most satisfying but unrealistic moment — is murdered by her old fiancé. 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 world’s great theatrical and moral messages.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The art of mis-casting: Dionysus and Lola

On Saturday I got to the Scottish National Theater's version of Euripides' Bacchae at the Rose Theater - the one where the draw is Alan Cumming as Dionysus. Wrong but not bad (as Bacchaes go, and I've seen or taken part in a lot of them). On Sunday I got into the Encores revival of Damn Yankees with Sean Hayes, Cheyenne Jackson, Randi Graff and Jane Krakowski. Everyone was good - but Jane.

So I'm pondering this at five in the morning (having just wakened from a rather delicious dream in which a favorite opera singer accompanied me on a quest to buy rare postage stamps, and suddenly he began licking them and I began licking them and we began licking each other, and the next thing I knew - well, I do wake up with a grin on my silly face after a dream like that, don't you?).

Bacchae is a difficult play; no one ever said it wasn't. It was found among Euripides's papers when he died (in exile), produced posthumously, and has aroused mistrustful accusations of blasphemy et al. ever since. I've seen it several times, played Pentheus twice and Tiresias once - I'm beginning to think I should consider undertaking the god's part next. I'm beginning to understand him.

Dionysus appears in several different "characters" - he is the stern, offended god newly returned from near-martyrdom at birth and a triumphal tour of the Far East to establish his cult among the unbelievers (including his difficult family) in Thebes. Then he is the antic, jolly leader of a band of maniacal devotees (sort of like Charles Manson), enslaved by wine and sex and excess generally. Then he appears in disguise as one of the eastern devotees, captured and questioned by King Pentheus, the determined, arrogant, order-obsessed, neurotic, insecure young ruler of Thebes - whom he proceeds to seduce. The king goes mad - yielding to his own repressed female side, his curiosity about the mysteries of the ecstatic god - and, dressed as a woman (even more of a disgrace for Greek men than for us), follows his tempter to the hills - where the madwomen tear him to pieces, led by his own blinded mother. The god has vanished, but he returns in the final scene. By this time our own attitudes have been altered - from thinking Pentheus a foolish brute to deny the ecstasy that is part of human life, and Dionysus right to resent his tyrannical unbelief, we have now come to think the punishments of this unhappy royal house much too harsh, to sympathize with mad, bereft Agave and wretched Cadmus. Dionysus, returning, makes no attempt to reacquire our sympathies - he washes his hands of the whole thing - he's only been the instrument of destiny, after all. (There is some doubt about the authorship of the last speeches.) We are in uneasy awe of the wayward but omnipotent god, almost fearing to protest what we certainly feel - are meant to feel - is injustice on his part, however tit for tat.

It's difficult - to say the least - for any director to link the first scenes of the play to its ending. There is no neat tying of the circle into a circle. The plot moves but the fable has no clear moral. We are uneasy with the Powers that Be, and religious ritual is not supposed to leave such an aftertaste.

Alan Cumming plays himself. (Can he play anything else? I've seen no evidence of it.) He does the first speeches of Dionysus as Scottish shtick, with little jokes and flirts and asides (almost), as if poking fun at this silly story. Considering the nature of the play's opening, this seems a bit over the top but not incorrect - Dionysus is supposed to be controlled uncontrollability. I accepted this, and also the wonderful Afro-Caribbean music-stylings of the chorus (all black women). I accepted the stiffness of Pentheus and the madness of Agave. But the seduction of Pentheus by Cumming's Dionysus was not ... comprehensible. They did not make it real. They did not explain the hypnosis, the trance, the spell the god casts. Cumming was not playing it - he was mouthing the lines in some other handy spirit. It was not part and parcel of what we knew. The continuity was not here. The final scene, too, seemed abrupt and out of place - I keep hoping a Dionysus will create by his movements or attitudes the link that is difficult to find on the page. Cumming did not show it.

Damn Yankees is another sort of drama about confronting the supernatural. This Pentheus is a baseball fan who wants to win the pennant from the Yankees, and the demon who tempts him is an entirely comical devil - nothing threatening about him, even when he asks where all this will end, and Sean Hayes, in a low, suggestive murmur says, "Oh I think we both know the answer to that." The drag he gets to wear - far better than any outfit of any maenad - is a young, buff body, in this case Cheyenne Jackson's. No one is complaining. But Pentheus never mentions a wife (he had one, though - per Greek mythology, he was the great-grandfather of Oedipus), and Joe Hardy left one behind - middle-aged, perhaps, but sturdy. To counter her influence, the devil conjures - Lola! The 172-year-old vamp from tempting Providence (also the hometown of Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls - what does this mean?).

Lola is not meant to be seductive any more than Mr. Applegate is demonic. She's a put-on. She says she drives men to suicide and women to divorce, but do you believe her? Gwen Verdon wasn't so much a brilliant dancer (though she was that) - she was a great comic. She put Lola over because she seemed to believe every word of her allure while every gesture kidded the idea. This was a popular way to handle sex in those days - Marilyn Monroe did it, too. Later Raquel Welch and Ann-Margret got some of their funniest mileage from the idea. But Verdon was also no beauty, which made the whole story that much madder.

Jane Krakowski has not thought the role out; she has merely imitated Verdon's routines (as was clear when I got home and played them on youtube), and her imitation is lifeless though expert. Yes, she can dance. Yes, she can move the moves. Yes, she has a far prettier singing voice than Verdon ever had - as if that meant anything. Looking nothing like Verdon (aside from an even flatter chest), she goes for Marilyn lookalike, which suits her coloring but does not suit the part. She does not link with the other characters. She's doing a solo turn in a book show. There is far more chemistry between Cheyenne Jackson and Randi Graff than he ever shares with this Lola - and he's not the one holding back.

It'a a lacuna in the midst of an otherwise charming revival. Even Sean Hayes makes more in his parody of Gwen Verdon's seductive dance than Krakowski does.