Lincoln Center Festival celebrates Independence Day at Park Avenue Armory with a German perspective

By Henrik Eger
Saturday, July 5, 2008

All photos by Hermann and Clärchen Baus

Opera in Four Acts
Music and Libretto by
Adapted from Michael Reinhold Lenz's 1776 play

Marie   Claudia Barainsky
Stolzius   Claudio Otelli
Stolzius' mother   Kathryn Harries
Charlotte   Claudia Mahnke
Wesener   Johann Tilli
Wesener's mother   Hanna Schwarz
Desportes   Peter Hoare
Countess de la Roche   Helen Field
Young Count   Andreas Conrad
Count von Spannheim   Andreas Becker
Pirzel   Robert Worle
Field Officer Mary   Kay Stiefermann

STEVEN SLOANE, conductor
David Pountney, stage director
Robert Innes Hopkins, set designer
Beate Vollack, choreographer

Performance of Friday, July 5, 2008
at Park Avenue Armory, New York City
Part of the 2008 Lincoln Center Festival

The Lincoln Center Festival celebrated the Fourth of July not with fireworks, but with a very serious connection to revolutionary times: the extraordinary German production of Bernd Zimmermann’s opera Die Soldaten (The Soldiers) at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City.  Just as the American Colonists broke away from old rules that no longer worked, Zimmerman based his opera on Jakob Lenz’s revolutionary play of the same title, written in 1776, the year of the American Declaration of Independence.

Similarly, just as King George was outraged by the new Americans, so Johann Joachim Eschenburg, one of Lenz’s critics in the middle of the 18th century, called him a boy that needs to be punched in the nose until he learns his place.  Eschenburg and many others clearly could not cope with a new playwright who was violating old established rules of drama and used language that polite society frowned upon. 

Rather than having a play where the audience could follow the action in a logical and chronological order, and showing the life of the privileged with virtues and vices distributed in predictable ways, Lenz does none of the above.  Instead, the 25-year-old Lenz created one of the first modern German plays that violated the Aristotelian laws of time, place, and action, and also broke old established rules of etiquette by pitting characters that lacked standing in an aristocratic world against members of the ruling class. 

More importantly, Die Soldaten, both the original play as well as the use of the text in Zimmermann’s opera, reflect powerfully Lenz’s many scenes which shift back and forth in time and space, heralding in modern cinematic approaches to writing, and ultimately, opera.  

Divided into four acts and fifteen scenes, the opera’s plot weaves together the stories of Marie (Claudia Barainsky), a beautiful young woman, and her sister Charlotte (Claudia Mahnke); a doting yet ambiguous father, Wesener (Johann Tilli), a general goods merchant who supplied the military; and Marie’s fiancé Stolzius (Claudio Otelli)—Latinized German for “the proud one”—a man with upright principles which ultimately lead to death and destruction when he discovers that his fiancée has been courted and then physically abused and turned into a whore by the aristocratic officers of the army.  Interwoven into the play are the powerful interactions between Marie’s grandmother (Hanna Schwarz), the mother (Kathryn Harries) of Stolzius, and the Countess (Helen Field), whose son is one of those involved in Marie’s seduction.  Unable to change his own life, let alone the social structures and constraints of the time, Stolzius kills one of the main perpetrators and himself. 

The Artistic Director of this challenging work, British-born David Pountney describes the essence of the play: “The Soldiers [ . . . ] do not represent war and anything that goes with it, but they represent an exclusively male privileged group with a various, highly developed class structure, especially vis-à-vis women.  Women in those days were either virgins, whores, or mothers.  There were no gray zones.” 

This production of Bochum’s RuhrTriennale showed many different levels of awareness, including assertions like “that’s because people don’t think,” and “thinking is a mission of the military,” all the way to “Let’s hope that people will just have fun and not learn.”  Holding up the Bible for everyone to see, one character even proudly announced, “I will not change my view.” 

Some of these comments seemed to reflect both the contemporary criticism over 200 years ago, and the criticism of those modern critics, who, perhaps unaccustomed to a merciless attack of atonal music, had a tough time with the production, which, in more than one way violated established rules.

Zimmermann’s opera, although considered one of the last masterpieces of atonal music, has also been perceived as one of the world’s most difficult operas to perform.  Consequently, Die Soldaten has been rejected by quite a few opera houses and has not seen many productions.  

Pountney sees Die Soldaten as “a colossal sound force of a militarized world” in the same twelve-tone compositional style as Berg’s Lulu and Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron.  However, he believes that Zimmermann’s work represents “an end point to that kind of music,” especially as it “presents a search for gigantism and hyper-complexity and consciously strives to be the non plus ultra.”

The gigantic work by Zimmermann was matched by the equally gigantic efforts of Pountney, the RuhrTriennale’s production team, and The Lincoln Center, who converted the elegant Armory on Park Avenue into a huge space which almost reached Hollywood film studio proportions. As someone who has seen operas around the world, I can safely say that I have never experienced a production where the entire audience section, powered by electric motors, moved along rails during the production, a process so complex in the Armory’s 138 year old hall, that it required a team of workers spending one week just shimmying up the tracks to eliminate the more than four inch variance in the floor as anything beyond a variance of more than one millimeter would have made for a bumpy ride. 

The effect of all the preparations was so strong that I was not sure whether the long runway of a stage was moving toward me or whether I was moving toward it, almost like looking out the window of a plane before take-off.  The staging was so thoughtfully constructed that I literally saw people on the other side, yet very close to me as if they were part of the performance.  Watching the opera, I felt as though I were looking into faces painted by Bosch or Ensor, and most likely, they saw my face as one of those creatures as well.
It took great courage for the RuhrTriennale to produce Die Soldaten in Europe and perhaps even more courage for the Lincoln Center to produce this fiendishly difficult opera in the US, where atonal music is not exactly in the running for the American Idol in the opera world, a place that has apparently gone to Puccini. 

However, opening night for this lavish inter-continental production sold out within no time, in spite of tickets which cost as much as several hundred dollars.  The RuhrTriennale brought over an enormous orchestra, a huge cast, the motors for the moving stages, and rebuilt everything in the United States—a process which must have cost millions, and was only made possible because the German Cultural Foundation [Kulturstiftung des Bundes] and a few other organizations which supported this magnificent enterprise. 

Usually, much of what happens and is done in the United States gets copied around the world, from popular music, fashion, films, and lifestyles.  Rarely does something happen the other way around: In this case, one of America’s foremost cultural flagships invited  one of the most difficult and complex German operas to land at a modern Plymouth Rock on Park Avenue, and perform in front of some of the most sophisticated audiences in New York City.

The RuhrTriennale production turned the Armory on Park Avenue into a place where German soldiers walked single file toward the audience before Zimmermann’s opera unfolded a whole panorama of human suffering, starting with steam coming out of the darkness in the back of this huge hall, placing the opera somewhere between the Oracle of Delphi and an industrial complex.

As a German native who has lived in the United States for almost thirty years, with a lot of exposure to contemporary American music and values, I found myself deeply challenged sitting only a few feet away from the actors, able to see the sweat on their forehead, even spit cascading out in some of the many outbursts that we witnessed in a production that spared us nothing: from the contempt of the aristocracy for common soldiers who were not even allowed to marry, to the betrayal of naïve young women and their rape in a brothel.

The whole opera unleashed verbal, physical, and sexual violence.  In a gruesome scene, Marie and two look-alikes, now at a Bordello, have their underwear torn off by men wearing tails and swine masks, making visible the women’s abdomens and thighs covered in blood, and even showing their pubic hair.  It was rape as a dance macabre, as a dance of death, where the young women were thrown from one man to the next, until they were finally passed to a trio of Santa Clauses with large boxes.  However, these gifts turned out to be even more rapes. 
I’m not a purist, but here, I felt that the director had taken too much license with the libretto and called attention to a Christmas scene that was grafted onto an otherwise very powerful production. 

Beate Vollack’s incredible choreography, which did not shy away from presenting mass rapes right in front of the audience, also showed the same soldiers in a ballet that was both breathtakingly beautiful and at the same time frightening when they stopped midstream and froze, then fighting each other with chairs held high up in the air, before freezing again, sending out signals that bad things were about to happen.  Wolfgang Göbbel’s spectacular lighting supported the music and the action throughout in ways that showed the tremendous potential of the Armory as an ideal venue for operas in the future.

Singling out some of the many great voices in this production would be as impossible as choosing one’s favorite child.  All of the singers and dancers did an outstanding job in a production that presented musical brilliance, artistry, and ensemble work at the highest level. 

The only technical concern I had with the evening’s production, where everything seemed perfect, even champagne waiting for us in one of the many reception halls, was the uneven way of presenting the supertitles in English, which either didn’t match the singing, or at other times did not appear at all. 

In the final scene, the father did not even recognize Marie—now a beggar woman—as his daughter, and he left her alone in the street.  During this last part of the opera, the large percussion section which was sitting on the right hand side of the hall, changed over to another rolling stage on the left hand side, and eventually joined the orchestra. 

Marie tried to move forward, walking into endlessness, dragging along, barefoot, away from her father, while drums rolled over her and the audience as if she were marching toward her own execution.  The sound became unbearable as she walked toward the table, collapsed in front of it, engulfed by darkness, a feathered dead body, birdlike, lying on top of it. 

The final cacophony of music was stronger than any dirge I have ever heard, and deep inside I felt torn apart by what I had experienced that night.  It was like walking into endlessness, into timelessness.  After a moment of silence, the audience erupted and gave the visitors from Germany a standing ovation. 

After the many emotional ups and downs that I experienced that evening, nothing moved me as much as the moments which followed the performance when the singers, dancers, the conductor (Steven Sloane), director, and even the costume designer (Marie-Jeanne Lecca), took to the stage laughing and beaming all over except for Stolzius (Otelli), the man who had been betrayed and belittled and who had murdered one of his oppressors.  While everyone was smiling and the conductor performed a mini-dance of joy with his feet stomping the stage, Otelli stood there looking as shell-shocked about the tragedy of Die Soldaten as I was.  I must admit, at that moment I no longer fought my tears. 

In a letter accompanying his newly printed play that he sent to his best friend, the German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, Lenz described himself as “an enigma to even his most precious friends,” while saying of the play, “Here, into your holy hands, the piece which carries half of my existence.  [The ideas it contains are] true and will remain so, even if centuries may walk contemptuously across my skull.” 

Seeing Otelli’s expression of despair throughout every encore, it seemed that Jakob Lenz had found life again in America.  

Henrik Eger, Ph.D. is a professor of English & Communication at DCCC, editor & writing consultant, German-English interpreter, and dialect coach. Founding conductor: Salzmann Singers, Duisburg, Germany.  Author of Mendelssohn Does Not Live Here Anymore and the docudrama Metronome Ticking. Member of Board of Directors: Theatre Ariel & Media Theatre, PA.