The centerpiece of this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival, “Die Soldaten” arrives on a justified wave of acclaim from Germany’s RuhrTriennale, where it had its first performances two years ago. This famously thorny 12-tone opera from 1965 is mounted only rarely due to its epically scaled conceptual demands. Director David Pountney and his creative team have tackled the work’s logistical problems with a massive yet simple staging solution. The entire audience is literally taken for a ride nine times during the evening as the seating area is rolled back and forth on tracks down much of the cavernous Park Avenue Armory’s 330-foot length.
Composer-librettist Bernd Alois Zimmermann based “Die Soldaten” (The Soldiers) on the 1776 play of the same name by Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz. An indictment of a militaristic society in which humans, particularly women, are pushed into straitened, hopelessly codified roles, it centers on a bourgeois girl forced — by social pressures and her own mercurial romantic and sexual urges — to flit among four men.
The climax is predictably catastrophic, with the abused and abandoned girl totally ostracized from the world at large, including her family. Zimmerman, a reluctant draftee into Germany’s Nazi army in World War II, spent his short lifetime suffering from degenerative eye and skin conditions as well as depression and severe insomnia. The shattering score of “Die Soldaten” reflects the anguished soul of this composer, who committed suicide at 52.
Zimmerman conceived the opera as a colossal evening of mixed media that would involve 12 separate stages, a jazz band, film projections, television and taped recordings in addition to its huge orchestra and cast. But the opera’s 1965 premiere in Cologne could not begin to fill such requirements, nor could its American premiere in Boston in 1982 or its New York City Opera incarnation in 1991.
Pountney’s benchmark staging is the first to come close to Zimmerman’s original ideal, providing an astonishingly effective solution to the work’s cinematic time and spatial concepts. Reset to the WWI era (Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costumes evoke the period perfectly) and brilliantly suggesting the continuity of time and memory through Robert Innes Hopkins’ spare sets and Wolfgang Gobbel’s striking lighting, the production is a cascade of unforgettable images.
A steambath full of lolling, overfed officers; a blind elderly matron groping her way helplessly around a room; a vicious rape scene choreographed with three identically dressed couples perpetuating the horror over and over — at every turn, Pountney and company surprise us with visions as disquieting as they are memorable.
Fortunately, the large cast of singing actors is equal to the production’s demands. Zimmerman’s musical line is an ungrateful one, with spiky leaps between chest and head ranges that allow little room for tonal beauty. But his idiom is apt for this disturbing material, and the cast embraces it with a vengeance.
There are no weak links, but special mention should be made of the valiant performance of soprano Claudia Barainsky in the central role of Marie, as well as Johann Tilli as her father and veteran mezzo Hanna Schwarz as her grandmother — a role consisting of little more than a few phrases. Bass-baritone Claudio Otelli is mesmerizing as Stolzius, whose obsession with Marie leads him to commit murder and suicide, and Kathryn Harries manages to be both poignant and hateful as his embittered mother. High tenor Robert Worle stands out as a powerful voice and presence in the role of Captain Pirzel.
Steven Sloane conducts the 110-member Bochumer Symphoniker orchestra with appropriately pulverizing force.
Virtually the production’s only drawback is the botched job done on surtitle translations. Sparse and insufficient, they often combine the lines of two characters on one card, adding confusion to the libretto’s already murky and symbol-laden poetry.
Depressing, despairing and hopeless “Die Soldaten” may be, but in director Pountney’s hands it leaves the audience with the kind of cathartic exhilaration that comes from an evening of pure and total theater.