In Review > International

Die Soldaten

Bavarian State Opera

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Andreas Kriegenburg's staging of Die Soldaten at the Bayerische Staatsoper
© Wilfried Hösl
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Christoph Stephinger (Wesener) and Barbara Hannigan (Marie)
© Wilfried Hösl 2014
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Barbara Hannigan
© Wilfried Hösl 2014

Die Soldaten, the massive operatic collage by Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970) arrived at Munich’s Bavarian State Opera on May 25 in an absolutely brilliant production by Andreas Kriegenburg.  One hardly exited the theatre humming any of the nonexistent tunes in Die Soldaten, but the musical and dramatic force of this opera and this particular representation of it, conducted by Kirill Petrenko, were overwhelming.   

The opera had its world premiere at the Cologne Opera House in 1965.  Based on a play of the same name by Jakob Michael Lenz (1751-1792), Die Soldaten takes place in French Flanders in 1775. Zimmermann has adopted Lenz' themes and characters but, as one born at the end of the "war to end all wars" — and as one who lived through the horrors of National Socialism in Germany — Zimmerman fashioned a work that was more universal, as well as more horrific than anything that Lenz might have imagined. 

Die Soldaten is not truly about war, but rather about man's inhumanity to man, or, in this case, to women; the military mindset breeds contempt for human rights.  To Lenz, it was important that the central character, Marie Wesener, as well as her Father, represented a middle class whose aim was upward mobility.  By rejecting the truly heartfelt love of Stolzius, her equal in class, in favor of soldiers of nobility, Marie steers herself into inevitable ruin.  She is the innocent victim of brutal sexual and psychological abuse.  

To underscore dramatic situations, Zimmermann has deliberately composed the vocal parts a fourth too high for comfort, pushing most of the singers to his or her vocal limit.  Through his twelve-tone technique and his mixture of different musical forms — including jazz and the innovative use of simultaneous action — Zimmerman shows an almost unbearably harsh world, typified by the merciless musical setting of the murder of Marie's first lover, Baron Desportes, and the suicide of Stolzius; the collective scream of the fallen; the reduction of Marie to a beggar not even recognized by her own father, and, at the end, a deafening block of sound that left the audience at the first night in Munich's Nationaltheater in a state of shock before an equally loud, simultaneous wave of approval broke out. 

The production was set generally in the early twentieth century: behavior, the costumes by Andrea Schraad and makeup suggest the silent film age with particular references to Fritz Lang's films — Metropolis was omnipresent. The largely unit set by Harald B. Thor showed a series of eight screened-in cages at the rear of the stage, with a chasm cutting through stage middle. The cross of man's inhumanity is borne by both victim and perpetrator. Three doors were seen right and left. They could be used for entrances and exits and were often used to accommodate long, mess hall-like tables that slid in and out: the phallic inference was obvious. Marie's bedroom was inside one of the cages; at her first rape, she stood face forward against the screen, grabbing on to the chicken-wire with horrified, outstretched fingers. Troop-following whores, often naked, were hung up like pieces of meat in a butcher shop, only to be sexually abused inside the cages by the voracious soldiers. The soldiers looked nearly identical, their pomaded, slicked-down hair showing not only a part in the middle but a huge stretch of bald scalp at the part. 

Marie's cat-like gestures were, at the beginning, naïve but not entirely innocent.  In Kriegenburg’s staging, Marie was like a repressed young sex kitten: the fulfillment of her desires led to her downfall. Kriegenburg gave us signs that Marie has been misused, if not actually abused, by her own father, who certainly seemed to have no objections to his daughter’s use of sex as a means of societal advancement. Likewise, Marie's temporary salvation through Countess de la Roche was subtly staged to show the Countess' ulterior sexual motives. Kriegenburg knows his job and he knows how to fascinate: he staged a sprawling, multifaceted work with extreme skill and insight. 

Conductor Kirill Petrenko, calm and collected, showed a sure-handed mastery of vast forces that nearly defied description: Zimmermann's enormous orchestra doesn't even fit into the large pit of the Nationaltheater. Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan's Marie might well be the performance of the year, both vocally and dramatically. Hannigan played every imaginable nuance of this complicated character, easily conquering death-defying intervals without once losing vocal focus or purity of tone; her performance left absolutely nothing to be desired. The thunderous ovation she received at her solo curtain was as heartfelt as it was deserved. 

Baritone Michael Nagy never once resorted to barking or shouting in the high-lying role of Stolzius.  As Baron Desportes, American tenor Daniel Brenna managed to sail into the extremities without making a musical travesty of the role. Tenor Kevin Conners was a splendid Pirzel, Christian Rieger presented an especially well sung and acted military preacher Eisenhardt. As Marie's sister, alto Okka von der Damerau conquered her role with fullness of voice.  It was also a pleasure to welcome back Hanna Schwarz as Wesener's old mother.  Both Heike Grötzinger (Stolzius' mother) and Nicola Beller Carbone (Countess de la Roche) distinguished themselves with outstanding singing, which, in this opera, cannot be taken for granted. For the rest of the huge ensemble, including extras, there can only be praise. The Bavarian State Opera should be exceedingly proud of itself for mounting what was once called an "unplayable" opera at such a high level of excellence. The public’s concentration during the work — and its enthusiasm at the final curtain — knew no bounds. spacer 


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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2