The Park Avenue Armory, that massive Victorian hulk situated between 66th and 67th streets, is well known for hosting the Annual Winter Antiques Show, where a well-heeled crowd enjoys its elegant preview parties, Young Collectors’ nights, and other pleasant rituals. Earlier this month, however, its cavernous Drill Hall was transformed for an event that demanded a rather different sort of ambiance—more like a Dantean circle of hell: The Lincoln Center Festival used it to present five performances of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s 1965 opera Die Soldaten (The Soldiers).
If you haven’t heard of this opera, then you haven’t heard of its composer, either. Zimmermann—who was born in 1918 and who died, by his own hand, in 1970—was an enormously learned and diligent composer who worked in many genres during his career. But his reputation rests solely on Die Soldaten.
Traumatized by his experience of the Second World War and its aftermath, Zimmermann fashioned his libretto from Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz’s 1776 play, a renowned example of the Sturm und Drang movement in German literature. Marie, the teenage daughter of a fancy goods merchant in the city of Lille, is tempted into having an affair with Desportes, a French soldier and nobleman, spurning the good-hearted young merchant Stolzius, who’s madly in love with her. Desportes is but one of a group of soldiers who seem more interested in carousing than fighting, and who toy with Marie until, raped by Desportes’ huntsman, she ends up destitute, unrecognized by her father; Stolzius gets his revenge by killing Desportes before taking his own life. At the end, the drama is engulfed in the sounds of screams and marching. We have reached the abyss.
Die Soldaten is an odd thing—a great opera that doesn’t have a lot of great music. Once favorably compared to the expressionist operas of Alban Berg, it now seems to come up short. The classical structures that underlie its often unsettling scenes, as in Wozzeck, are intellectual poses rather than expressive tools, and Zimmermann’s characters are two-dimensional compared to the fully rounded, lyrically effusive beings that populate Lulu. Only in two scenes—the tour de force finale of Act II, in which Marie’s downfall is depicted from three perspectives at once, and the Rosenkavalier-like trio that ends Act III—does the music truly rise to the occasion.
ZIMMERMANN WAS BOTH a man of his time and a man ahead of it. The foundation of his style was the kind of 12-tone music—gray, grim, forbidding—that dominated the 1960s, but it’s the collagelike way in which other kinds of music—jazz, Gregorian chant, folk songs, Bach chorales—are mixed in that gives the piece a manic, back-and-forth bounce that suits the obsessive zeal with which Zimmermann attacked his subject. Somehow, Die Soldaten works.
The Cologne Opera rejected the wildly impractical original version, designed to be performed on twelve acting areas, embellished by three cinema screens, and with part of the huge orchestra sequestered off-stage. The successful 1965 premiere was mounted on a conventional proscenium stage—as was New York City Opera’s 1991 production at the State Theater, which some cognoscenti still rhapsodize about.
I may only need to see Die Soldaten once in my life, but I feel lucky to have experienced David Pountney’s production, which was first offered by the RuhrTriennale festival in 2006. Some critics have not been kind; the venerable John Simon (writing for Bloomberg.com) hoisted the cry of “Regietheater”—that very German affliction which causes directors to take wild liberties with a composer’s stage directions in order to make some kind of aesthetic or political point.
But with one ridiculous exception (rapists wearing Santa Claus suits? really?), Mr. Pountney’s liberties seemed necessary to make sense out of an almost unstageable piece. Costumes ranged widely to evoke the Edwardian era, Weimar Germany and the frozen fields of Stalingrad—a whole arena of social and military conflict that stretched across decades.
By now you’ve heard of the two massive, movable sets of steel bleachers (conceived by Robert Innes Hopkins) that transferred approximately 1,000 listeners back and forth on railroad tracks along a narrow strip of stage that stretched from one end of the hall to the other. The immediate effect, as one sat down and gazed into the distance, was chilling: The transition between Acts I and II, in which stark white lights lit up the steel cage above us that held the whole structure together, was breathtaking in its wonder.
Amid all this expensive architectonic grandeur, a living, breathing performance (backed up by the excellent Bochum Symphony and its conductor, Steven Sloane) took place. Claudia Barainsky’s full physique may not have suggested destitution, but her Marie was both emotionally responsive and vocally disciplined; Peter Hoare’s agile high tenor lent an almost sympathetic elegance to the unsympathetic role of Desportes. (The two share an astonishing scene involving a dance, a quill pen and a cascade of daunting coloratura.)
Claudio Otelli’s utterly committed portrayal of Stolzius as a pathetic melancholic was so effective that you almost understood why Marie was tempted to leave him. Claudia Mahnke sang the role of Marie’s sister Charlotte with an unfailingly warm tone, and Kay Stiefermann was a dashing and distinctive Major Mary, another of Marie’s suitors. Two distinguished veterans—Hanna Schwarz and Helen Field—lent genuine grandeur and profound expression to their motherly roles.
Russell Platt is a composer and a music editor at The New Yorker.