by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, July 21, 2008.
When Mozart placed a loud, dark, bone-chilling chord of D minor in the first bars of Don Giovanni, he set a new precedent for operatic curtain-raisers: instead of charming his listeners into paying attention, he would stun them into submission, with intimations of the awakening of the dead and the opening of the gates of Hell. Modern scholarship suggests that Mozart may have derived aspects of his famous gesture from none other than Antonio Salieri, that most unfairly abused of composers, whose opera La Grotta di Trofonio, premièred two years before Don Giovanni, contains some strikingly similar demonic noises. Ever since, composers have tried to outdo each other with carefully engineered hammer blows of fate. Verdi’s Otello begins with a rumbling six-note dissonance; Strauss’s Elektra with a souped-up D-minor detonation; Alban Berg’s Lulu with a sharply stabbing figure that foreshadows the heroine’s fate.
Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s 1965 opera Die Soldaten, the story of a woman’s degradation at the hands of a series of heartless soldiers, has a prelude of such stupefying intensity that it stands for the moment as the ne plus ultra. The full orchestra sustains an enormous dissonance spread out over many octaves. Beneath it, the timpani pound out, “in iron rhythm,” the note D—perhaps a nod backward to Don Giovanni. The onslaught returns several times as the prelude unfolds, though it periodically gives way to a frenzy of competing voices: the trumpets tangle in independent rhythms, violins buzz around maniacally in their upper registers, the timpani repeatedly fall out of synch with the principal one-two pulse. The music is at once hyper-organized and deranged, a death machine that leaves chaos in its wake.
The masterstroke of David Pountney’s production of Die Soldaten—an amazing, alarming spectacle that had its première two years ago, in a former steelworks in Bochum, Germany, and travelled last week to the Park Avenue Armory, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival—is to put the audience at the mercy of a physical mechanism that is nearly as formidable as the infernal devices suggested in the score. Before the music started, we were seated in bleachers, which rested on wheels at one end of an array of railroad tracks. When Steven Sloane, the conductor, gave the downbeat, the apparatus began gliding slowly across the vast expanse of the Armory’s Drill Hall. Five minutes later, we came to a halt at the far end of the space, more than two hundred feet away. As we moved, we passed the writhing orchestra, which was positioned on risers to the left; it was a bit like taking a hot-air-balloon ride over a volcanic eruption. I imagined Mozart saying, “O.K., you win.”
With certain artists, the summoning of apocalyptic visions can seem a calculated move, a swaggering display of power. With Zimmermann, however, there is no question of insincerity. He was born in 1918, grew up amid the insanity of Hitler’s Germany, and served in Poland, France, and Russia during the Second World War. In the wake of his wartime experiences, he focussed obsessively on themes of social injustice, reserving his greatest scorn for racism and militarism. The bleakness of his world view was doubtless related to the anguish of his daily life: he was beset by a severe skin condition, debilitating eye problems, and attacks of depression. Friends found him lively company, but despair overwhelmed him in the end; in 1970, at the age of fifty-two, he committed suicide—an act that he had contemplated, according to his diary, as early as 1945.
If Zimmermann found any relief from his agonies, it may have been by transmuting them into music. Most of his works rely on Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method of composition, but the system is employed less as a free-standing, abstract language than as a kind of master matrix on which any kind of material can be plotted. Thus, the twelve-note row of his 1954 trumpet concerto, Nobody Knows de Trouble I See, allows for the incorporation of the African-American spiritual of the same name and, implicitly, for a denunciation of racism. Zimmermann called his music “pluralist,” in the sense that it absorbs many genres and the styles of many eras. Yet it is not exactly an egalitarian free-for-all; often, popular sounds take on a diabolical tinge, representing a world that, in thrall to lust and greed, has lost its moral bearings.
Die Soldaten, composed in the late nineteen-fifties and extensively revised before its 1965 première, is based on a play by Jakob Lenz, a visionary eighteenth-century writer of the Sturm und Drang period who looked ahead to naturalism and expressionism. Marie, the heroine, naïvely goes in pursuit of various preening officers, and, as she is passed from one to the other, she loses the spark of life. Reduced to prostitution in the final scene, she goes unrecognized by her own father. Zimmermann, imitating Berg’s example in Wozzeck and Lulu, condensed the play into an episodic, at times surreally blurred structure. The words come from Lenz, but the web of musical allusions, encompassing Renaissance fanfares, Bach chorales, brooding Wagnerian harmonies, electric jazz, and futuristic tape sounds, widens the drama into a timeless morality play. The major weakness is in the vocal writing, which lacks variety and fails to create strong distinctions among the characters. The orchestra really drives the action; the singers, perhaps fittingly, are cogs in the machine.
For an opera of such extreme logistical complexity—the score requires an orchestra of more than a hundred players, some seventy percussion instruments, a jazz combo, and truckloads of electronics—Die Soldaten is staged fairly often. I have heard it twice before: at New York City Opera, in 1991, and at the Semperoper, in Dresden, in 1995. Opera directors, with their love for the lurid, seem to relish the opportunity to pile horror upon horror; while the libretto calls for one rape, we are usually subjected to rapes galore. Pountney’s staging, with sets by Robert Innes Hopkins, was no exception. Men dressed as Santa Claus held down screaming women. A male servant’s buttocks were groped. One victim was left a bloody pulp. Brutality threatened to become an abstraction, stylized and trivialized. Yet the grandeur of the conception pushed the clichés into the background; the Armory became a kind of scenic landscape of the deadly sins.
The action took place on a runway that extended down the middle of the Armory, with the bleachers, which moved intermittently, on either side. At times, the audience passed close enough to the singers so that the opera became almost a chamber play. The arrangement was a boon to Claudia Barainsky, the soprano singing Marie, who extracted a degree of lyricism and playful glitter from her cruelly difficult part. Claudio Otelli, nobly pained as Marie’s first lover, Stolzius, and Kay Stiefermann, showing a strong baritone voice as Field Officer Mary, were other standouts in the cast. Unfortunately, the unusual placement of the orchestra, well to the side of the singers, meant that many instrumental details floated away in the Armory’s acoustical cavern—in particular, the intimate entanglements of alto flute, saxophone, guitar, and other solo parts, which echo the darkly ravishing sound world of Pierre Boulez’s Marteau sans Maître. Still, creative amplification allowed for a good general picture of the score. The Bochum Symphony played with fiery commitment; Sloane presided confidently over the horde of performers.
The ending of this Soldaten was as impressive as the opening. As Marie went to her fate, and as the bleachers receded to their original position, a storm of electronic noise engulfed the audience, emanating both from loudspeakers hanging overhead and from subwoofers beneath the seats. In the orchestra, snare drummers rapped out a military beat, to numbing effect. Finally, screams went up from the speakers—according to Zimmermann’s original conception, the voices of victims of an atomic blast—while the orchestra intoned the note D in a slowly dying unison. Subtle, no; awesome, yes.