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Valhalla Station! All Aboooord!

New York
Park Avenue Armory
07/05/2008 -  & July 7, 9, 11, 12, 2013
Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Die Soldaten

Claudia Barainsky (Marie), Peter Hoare (Desportes), Johann Tilli (Wesener), Claudia Mahnke (Charlotte), Hanna Schwarz (Wesener’s old mother), Claudio Otelli (Stolzius), Kathryn Harries (Stolzius’s mother), Andreas Becker (Colonel, Count von Spannheim), Robert Wörle (Pirzel), Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Eisenhardt), Adrian Clarke (Haudy), Kay Stiefemann (Mary), Michael Smallwood (First Young Officer), Christopher Lemmings (Second Young Officer), Mark Adler (Third Young Officer), Helen Field (Countess de la Roche), Andreas Conrad (The young count, her son), Beate Vollack (Andalusian servant girl), Patrick Entat, Harald Wink, David Laera (Three young ensigns), Ernst Dieter Suttheimer (The Countess de la Roche’s servant), Pablo Bottinelli (A drunken officer), Arno Bovensmann, Robert Christott, Thomas Stenzel (Three Captains), Arno Bovensmann, Robert Christott, Thomas Stenzel, Selcuk Alica, Pablo Bottinelli, Markus Campana, Herman Heidenreich, Albert Kedves, Kersten Hanke, Guido Pieper, Markus Schneider, Tim Ludwig (Officers and Ensigns), Clemens Becker, Catalina Gomez, Carsten Hahn, Eduard Klinkert, Bernadette Lietzmann (Supernumeraries)
Bochum Symphony, Steven Sloane (Conductor)
Beate Vollack (Choregrapher), Holger Schwark (Sound Designer), Wolfgang Göbel (Lighting Designer), Marie-Jeanne Lecca (Costume Designer), Robert Innes Hopkins (Set Designer), David Pountney (Director)

(© Hermann & Clärchen Baus)

Everything about Die Soldaten calls for staggering similes. Before the opera begins, the audience wanders around New York’s huge 130-year-old Armory rooms as if at a cocktail party in Valhalla. Once inside the 55,000-square-foot drill hall where the opera is to be staged, the thousand-odd listeners seem dwarfed by railroad tracks, 80-foot-high vaulted ceilings and a 236-foot emerald-green runway leading to a horizon of smoke, darkness, eerie lights and a bed radiating with ectoplasmic white. On both sides of the runway are orchestras. One orchestra has 110 players (mainly, it seems, f the heaviest brass possible), another isercussion. A third, a jazz orchestra would soon be on stage turning the cast of 40 into raving savages.

On all sides are television screens showing conductor Steven Sloane leading his bands, but resembling images from 1984. Once the opera starts, noises are loud enough to wake up the universe. More astute critics note the Bach chorale, and one or two scenes of tip-toe quiet, but for the most part Dioe Soldaten makes the loudest composer of the 20th Century, Bruno Maderna, sound like he was composing songs for a Trappist monastery.

The story (for Die Soldaten has a real and simple story) though written by a madman A teenage rather dull girl, Maria, is in love with a draper’s assistant, but she is seduced by a military Baron, and she quickly turns into a “soldier’s whore”, is raped repeatedly and soon not even her father doesn’t recognize the miserable beggar-girl she has become. Stylistically, Bernd Alois Zimmermann—who shot himself five years after the 1965 premiere—was trying to show simultaneous part-present-future scenes. He attempted to create an atmosphere where “peacetime” 18th Century soldiers (for the word “war” is not mentioned once) treat women as sheep, slaves, whores and worse.

For his last five years, composer Zimmermann became a master of pastiche, using composers like Bach, Strauss, Prokofiev. Strauss and Debussy for his own purposes. Here, though, his work was original (albeit descended literally from Alban Berg), with only Bach, some jazz and a kind of Rosenkavalier pastiche for his collage.

The rest was as quick as film (some scenes lasting less than a minute), complex, incredibly tense .magnetic. Nobody left the Armory in the intermission, but nobody spoke about the music. Everybody was fascinated when we were turned into cinematic zoom lenses, rolling down the tracks past the orchestras to visit a bedroom or a bathhouse or a bar, then back again, but it was a carnival ride, not a revelation.

The mise en scene was fascinating. When Maria is seduced by the Baron, the only language is “Ha-ha-ha”, as the two dance down the long long runway to the bed far off in the distance. When Maria is gang-raped by the entire regiment, Zimmermann had called for a film to be shown. Here, though, it was too realistic to a point. Maria, suddenly made into three Marias, trots down the runway to be picked up and virtually raped by every man in the regiment until at the end—I kid you not—she meets three lean men dressed as Santa Claus, for the final very violent rapes which came as close to violence as anything in any opera.

Individually, the characters are just as violent, and brilliantly sung and acted. One cannot forget Maria’s lascivious father, the very tall Johann Tilli, as he fondles his daughter, she wearing little-girl clothes. It is a bit disgusting, but absolutely mesmeric. Equally fine was Helen Field, the Countess de la Roche, aristocratic to the core, vicious, beautiful, part of the trio which parodied Rosenkavalier. The two major lovers, the dismal draper, Claudio Otelli and the arrogant Baron, Peter Hoare, are like cosmic opposites until they are both poisoned at the end.

Claudia Barainsky, as Maria, is described by Zimmermann as a coloratura soprano. But not a single role is less than abnormally “coloratura” in this so difficult opera. Ms. Barainsky customarily plays in European avant-garde opera, and her assurance in her range is almost fearsome. Not that he voice has a Wagnerian strength (as do the other principles), but for most of the opera, she is supposed to be frail, powerless, a waif against the whole military machine.

Yet with all the stage magic, the highly dramatic and vocal roles, the unabating volume and the over-the-top characters, something is wrong. Not a sin of commission but a sin of omission. Die Soldaten rarely moves our minds or emotions. It is a trick which buzzes around words like “torture” and “beasts” and “death” and “whore” with a fury more compulsive-obsessive than organic. We are transported from one vicious scene to another and can’t wait to see who is poisoned, who is raped, what insults are hurled. Yet all the characters are cutouts, they are all doomed, they are all sexual fiends.

And that sameness—like the sameness of the ferociously dissonant horns ior the drums ruthlessly banging away as loudly as possible—tends to negate itself.

Don’t get me wrong. If you can see Die Soldaten, go, go, go!!! It is an experience like no other in New York opera this year. In good or great opera, though, one exits feeling aroused, even ebullient. With Die Soldaten, we realize we have been watching and listening to a spectacle of proportions which are enormous and complex. But Gargantuan is not necessarily glorious, and visual-aural torment here may be infinitely isolated from the mystery of great art.

Harry Rolnick



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