Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Kaufmann's first Otello: Royal Opera House, London

Out of the blackness, Keith Warner’s new production of Verdi’s Otello explodes into being with a violent gesture of fury. Not the tempest raging in the pit - though Antonio Pappano conjures a terrifying maelstrom from the ROH Orchestra and the enlarged ROH Chorus hurls a blood-curdling battering-ram of sound into the auditorium. Rather, Warner offers a spot-lit emblem of frustrated malice and wrath, as a lone soldier fiercely hurls a Venetian mask to the ground.

Don Carlo in Marseille

First mounted in 2015 at the Opéra National de Bordeaux this splendid Don Carlo production took stage just now at the Opéra de Marseille with a completely different cast and conductor. This Marseille edition achieved an artistic stature rarely found hereabouts, or anywhere.

Diamanda Galás: Savagery and Opulence

Unconventional to the last, Diamanda Galás tore through her Barbican concert on Monday evening with a torrential force that shattered the inertia and passivity of the modern song recital. This was operatic activism, pure and simple. Dressed in metallic, shimmering black she moved rather stately across the stage to her piano - but there was nothing stately about what unfolded during the next 90 minutes.

Schubert Wanderer Songs - Florian Boesch, Wigmore Hall

A summit reached at the end of a long journey: Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau at the Wigmore Hall, as the two-year Complete Schubert Song series draws to a close. Unmistakably a high point in the whole traverse. A well-planned programme of much-loved songs performed exceptionally well, with less well known repertoire presented with intelligent flourish.

La Bohème in San Francisco

In 2008 it was the electrifying conducting of Nicola Luisotti and the famed Mimì of Angela Gheorghiu, in 2014 it was the riveting portrayals of Michael Fabbiano’s Rodolfo and Alexey Markov’s Marcelo. Now, in 2017, it is the high Italian style of Erika Grimaldi’s Mimì — and just about everything else!

A heart-rending Jenůfa at Grange Park Opera

Katie Mitchell’s 1998 Welsh National Opera production of Janáček’s first mature opera, Jenůfa, is a good choice for Grange Park Opera’s first season at its new home, West Horsley Place. Revived by Robin Tebbutt, Mitchell and designer Vicki Mortimer’s 1930s urban setting emphasises the opera’s lack of sentimentality and subjectivism, and this stark realism is further enhanced by the narrow horseshoe design of architect Wasfi Kani’s ‘Theatre in the Woods’ whose towering walls and narrow width seem to add further to the weight of oppression which constricts the lives of the inhabitants.

Pelléas et Mélisande at Garsington Opera

“I am nearer to the greatest secrets of the next world than I am to the smallest secrets of those eyes!” So despairs Golaud, enflamed by jealousy, suspicious of his mysterious wife Mélisande’s love for his half-brother Pelléas. Michael Boyd’s thought-provoking new production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande at Garsington Opera certainly ponders plentiful secrets: of the conscience, of the subconscious, of the soul. But, with his designer Tom Piper, Boyd brings the opera’s dreams and mysteries into landscapes that are lit, symbolically and figuratively, with precision.

Carmen: The Grange Festival

The Grange Festival, artistic director Michael Chance, has opened at Northington Grange giving everyone a chance to see what changes have arisen from this change of festival at the old location. For our first visit we caught the opening night of Annabel Arden's new production of Bizet's Carmen on Sunday 11 June 2017. Conducted by Jean-Luc Tingaud with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the pit, the cast included Na'ama Goldman as Carmen, Leonardo Capalbo as Don Jose, Shelley Jackson as Micaela and Phillip Rhodes as Escamillo. There were also two extra characters, Aicha Kossoko and Tonderai Munyevu as Commere and Compere. Designs were by Joanna Parker (costume co-designer Ilona Karas) with video by Dick Straker, lighting by Peter Mumford. Thankfully, the opera comique version of the opera was used, with dialogue by Meredith Oakes.

Don Giovanni in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera revved up its 2011 production of Don Giovanni with a new directorial team and a new conductor. And a blue-chip cast.

Dutch National Opera puts on a spellbinding Marian Vespers

A body lies in half-shadow, surrounded by an expectant gathering. Our Father is intoned in Gregorian chant. The solo voices bloom into a chorus with a joyful flourish of brass.

Into the Wood: A Midsummer Night's Dream at Snape Maltings

‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where Oxlips and the nodding Violet grows.’ In her new production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Netia Jones takes us deep into the canopied groves of Oberon’s forest, luring us into the nocturnal embrace of the wood with a heady ‘physick’ of disorientating visual charms.

Rigoletto in San Francisco

Every once in a while a warhorse redefines itself. This happened last night in San Francisco when Rigoletto propelled itself into the ranks of the great masterpieces of opera as theater — the likes of Falstaff and Tristan and Rossini’s Otello.

My Fair Lady at Lyric Opera of Chicago

In its spring musical production of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady Lyric Opera of Chicago has put together an ensemble which does ample justice to the wit and lyrical beauty of the well-known score.

Henze: Elegie für junge Liebende

Hans Werner Henze’s compositions include ten fine symphonies, various large choral and religious works, fourteen ballets (among them one, Undine, that ranks the greatest of modern times), numerous prominent film scores, and hundreds of additional works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, solo instruments or voice. Yet he considered himself, above all, a composer of opera.

Werther at Manitoba Opera

If opera ultimately is about bel canto, then one need not look any further than Manitoba Opera’s company premiere of Massenet’s Werther, its lushly scored portrait of an artist as a young man that also showcased a particularly strong cast of principal artists. Notably, all were also marking their own role debuts, as well as this production being the first Massenet opera staged by organization in its 44-year history.

Seattle: A seamlessly symphonic L’enfant

Seattle Symphony’s “semi-staged” presentation of L’enfant et les sortilèges was my third encounter with Ravel’s 1925 one-act “opera.” It was incomparably the most theatrical, though the least elaborate by far.

Der Rosenkavalier: Welsh National Opera in Cardiff

Olivia Fuchs' new production of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier is a co-production between Welsh National Opera and Theater Magdeburg. The production debuted in Magdeburg last year and now Welsh National Opera is presenting the production as part of its Summer season, the company's first Der Rosenkavalier since 1990 (when the cast included Rita Cullis as the Marschallin and Amanda Roocroft making her role debut as Sophie).

Don Giovanni takes to the waves at Investec Opera Holland Park

There’s no reason why Oliver Platt’s imaginative ‘concept’ for this new production of Don Giovanni at Investec Opera Holland Park shouldn’t work very well. Designer Neil Irish has reconstructed a deck of RMS Queen Mary - the Cunard-White Star Line’s flag-ship cruiser during the 1930s, that golden age of trans-Atlantic cruising. Spanning the entire width of the OHP stage, the deck is lined with port-holed cabin doors - perfect hideaways for one of the Don’s hasty romantic dalliances.

"Recreated" Figaro at Garsington delights

After the preceding evening’s presentation of Annilese Miskimmon’s sparkling production of Handel’s Semele - an account of marital infidelity in immortal realms - the second opera of Garsington Opera’s 2017 season brought us down to earth for more mundane disloyalties and deceptions amongst the moneyed aristocracy of the eighteenth-century, as presented by John Cox in his 2005 production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro.

Semele: star-dust and sparkle at Garsington Opera

To open the 2017 season at Garsington Opera, director Annilese Miskimmon and designer Nicky Shaw offer a visually beautifully new production of Handel's Semele in which comic ribaldry and celestial feuding converge and are transfigured into star-dust.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Die Soldaten
13 Jul 2008

Die Soldaten

Bernd Alois Zimmermann was a sensitive, none too healthy 21-year-old music prodigy in 1939, when he was drafted into the German army.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Die Soldaten

Marie: Claudia Barainsky; Charlotte: Claudia Mahnke; Mme Wesener: Hanna Schwarz; Mme Stolzius: Kathryn Harries; Countess de la Roche: Helen Field; Wesener: Johann Tilli; Stolzius: Claudio Otelli; Desportes: Peter Hoare; Major Mary: Kay Stiefermann; Count de la Roche: Andreas Conrad. Bochum Symphony conducted by Steven Sloane. Directed by David Pountney. Ruhr Triennial Production of 2007, restaged at the Park Avenue Armory, New York, for the Lincoln Center Festival. Performance of July 9.

 

He was invalided out in 1942, but that was quite enough to give him a lifetime’s horror of the brutalities of war and what militarism does to society (especially German society). This was not a new idea, though the Nazi Era saw the worst, the apotheosis, of it, and there had been protests before — one of them, The Soldiers, an eighteenth-century play by J.M.R. Lenz, is a didactic fable that shows the notion of military glamour corrupting young people, relations between the sexes and between the classes, and politics.

Zimmerman turned the play into an opera according to twelve-tone principles but with many additional threads from other arts, intending, it seems, to outdo Wagner in its melding of different arts into “total theater,” with opera, a 110-piece orchestra with special percussion and jazz units, spoken theater, ballet, film, television, circus, electronic music, tape and sound techniques to tell a tight, unpleasant, unglamorous little story. Comparisons to Wozzeck are obvious — let’s just say Wozzeck is a whole lot shorter and more focused. (Wozzeck is also based on a far earlier play.) Die Soldaten premiered in Cologne in 1965. Having said what he had to say, Zimmerman killed himself in 1970.

Stagings of Die Soldaten must always be special events — the work is not for small companies or repertory productions. The singers have to be first-rate musicians and first-rate actors, the orchestra huge and expert, the special effects cannot easily be fudged. For this year’s Lincoln Center Festival, the Ruhr Triennial brought their 2007 staging to the Park Avenue Armory, home base when it was built in the 1880s of the most fashionable regiment in town and thus an ideal space for the purpose, both in terms of its block-long size and the military trappings, which have recently been spectacularly refurbished and will keep you agog for the intermissions of any event you attend there. (The City Opera hopes to use it for the New York premiere of Messiaen’s St. François d’Assise in 2010.)

As an event — as a theatrical experience — there can hardly be two opinions of Die Soldaten’s success: It is overwhelming, fascinating theater, a live performance designed with cinematic technique. The impossibly huge room (stretching from near Park Avenue to Lexington) was given a T-shaped stage — the crossbar at the Lexington end, the narrow centerpiece down the center to the seats. The orchestra played on one side, the percussion ensemble on the other. The audience, a thousand of us, sat on rising seats at the Park Avenue end, but our seats were on rollers on six train tracks. For close-ups on the crossbar, we were silently brought east to it; then we were silently moved backwards as scene after scene unfolded on the central stage, where characters were sang while walking, sometimes through each other’s “rooms” on a stage set with sparse evocative furnishings. A Turkish bath for the soldiers, a countess’s salon, a snowy street, the steppes of Russia’s battlefields were thus evoked. There was no interruption between scenes; the continuity made the swiftness of the sordid story of a young girl’s descent from innocently accepting presents from an officer, to his kept woman, to everybody’s whore, to freezing beggar all the more devastating and, at least in this version, inevitable.

No doubt the horrors of war (between men and women, as well as between armies) can be affectingly presented in melodious ways — Prokofiev’s War and Peace comes to mind, and few operas end with more quietly devastating effect than Tchaikowsky’s Mazeppa, as the heroine, having gone mad, lullabies a dying man she believes to be her lost baby. But war in the mid-twentieth century has been savage beyond the stretch of melody, and seemed to Zimmermann to call for unhummable music. Yet he did not make the mistake of many of his atonal contemporaries — his singers do not simply screech at the top of their lungs to express intense feeling, but use the full range of their voices so that subtler shades of meaning can get across. Conversations in this opera do not turn into set pieces — lovers sing at cross purposes, a trio for three arguing women never blends but leaves each of them in her separate world. This is naturalistic and appropriate, but leaves one sometimes wondering if opera is really the medium for Zimmermann’s vision — certainly not traditional opera, but then Die Soldaten is hardly a traditional opera.

It would be amusing to consider what a composer a hundred or two hundred years earlier would have done when setting Lenz’s play: Charlotte’s folk song of broken hearts in the opening scene would have a recognizable melody so that it could return as her sister’s life descended step by step on the social scale, from girlfriend to mistress to whore to beggar. The loutish soldiers’ reflections on the honor of women (or lack of it) would be a merry chorus instead of a collection of brutal shards of tone. Desportes, the “noble” lout who seduces Marie and gives her to his gamekeeper for rape when she becomes too importunate, would have time for a drinking song before Marie’s old boyfriend poisoned him (as, brutally, melodramatically, he does). The trio of three arguing women who never listen to each other would be sublime in the hands of a Mozart.

We can be touched by such methods, but Zimmerman didn’t want to touch us — he wanted to batter us, to shove our faces in it, to eliminate the distance that art necessarily allows for, to make us feel war. He wanted big faces on movie screens to demonstrate the horrors he’d scene at the Front. David Pountney’s production, though the lighting effects (by Wolfgang Göbbel) are subtly brilliant (wavering spirals over the action of a drunken party; shadows that swallow characters when the story has no further use for them), shoves us into, and among, its lurid story by having us zoom across the theater into the girls’ bedroom and the soldier’s mess, then pulling us back for scenes of perspective or of long walks or a nightmare “ballet” sequence in which the ever less clothed, less conscious Marie is tossed from one pig-masked black-tied brute to another. This cinematic variety of perspective makes it easier to notice, for instance, that Marie’s clumsy, childish walk in Act I has become a kept woman’s flounce by Act III, and for a devastating final image to have her — rejected in the snow by her father, who does not recognize her — staggering down endless, featureless streets into a steppe laden with snow-covered dead bodies, recalling Germany’s Russian campaign of World War II.

But what would Zimmermann have done with his brittle, savage, shocking style of composition if, by chance, any of his characters had agreed with each other? If two people had shared love, for example (all the yearning is one-sided here)? It’s difficult to see how that would work in his system, and one admires his cleverness in designing a libretto where it never happens: this is all confrontation, cross-purposes, asides and social cruelties. Verdi and Mozart and Wagner could set confrontation beguilingly, but that is not Zimmermann’s intention. The tonal texture did not outrage (some people left at the intermission — a pity, as the second half was the more exciting) but it did not please, soothe, appeal — it is not meant to. This is art designed to explicate brutality. I enjoyed the intrusive off-kilter atonal jazz band in the banquet scene; another effect of some charm was a percussive rumble like distant freight trains that turned out to be an uncomposed thunderstorm breaking on the Armory roof.

The singers sang with microphones (necessary in the Armory, and suggested by the composer). Microphones can cover lack of volume but not disguise other sins. Let it be said that none of them sounded as if this fantastically difficult music put them out unduly, and I’d be very interested to hear what they can do unamplified and with more gracious sounds to produce. Their acting was superb across the board, and went as far as the manner of movement, the stance adopted in different social situations (a countess alone does not move like a countess in front of social inferiors; a bourgeois boy stands differently when he has enlisted as an officer’s orderly).

Claudia Barainsky was Marie, whose descent is the trajectory of the opera, and her changeable, corruptible moods — innocent flirtatiousness, hauteur when criticized, wracked with jealousy, despair, numbness — guided every phrase as well as every step. As the opera opens, she is bursting with life; as it ends she is empty — and every step, every sound, is part of that picture. Claudia Mahnke sang her sister in a way to contrast at each step — echoing but adjusting her sister’s flightiness with caution, as if to show us that safety could have been an option. Helen Field was splendid as the countess willing to save Marie — as long as Marie agrees not to seduce the countess’s son.

Among the men, the most striking picture and the most interesting sounds, ingratiating, contemptuous, amorous, disgusting, came from Peter Hoare as the officer who corrupts Marie and — in the opera’s stagiest, most satisfying but unrealistic moment — is murdered by her old fiancé. Kay Stiefermann was almost sympathetic as a less amoral but less intelligent officer.

Steven Sloane, aided by a dozen close-circuit televisions, kept musicians and singers and machinery in step through a grueling night to the final shattering tableau.

Is this sort of multiple-effect total-art-work the wave of some budget-unconscious future? Is it necessary to abandon melody and the art of unamplified singing to achieve it? Such questions arise but do not interrupt the presentation of one of the world’s great theatrical and moral messages.

John Yohalem

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):