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.