Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Gone to Soldiers

July 06, 2008

Claudia Barainsky
Photo : Clärchen und Matthias Baus/Ruhr Triennial

High fuel prices have increased interest in mass transit across the nation. But leave it to New York to have pushed this trend to its limit already. At a cost of millions, they’ve imported a device to transport about 1000 people back and forth twice over 40 yards in approximately three hours at an average rider cost of around 100 dollars a trip. Yet, while it may be transporting, the question in the big city is always the same – But is it art?

In this case the answer is yes. In fact, it’s spectacularly, yes. The occasion is the Lincoln Center Festival’s presentation of Bernd Alois Zimermann’s Die Soldaten. The much-hyped production is imported from the Ruhr Triennale and directed by David Pountney. It combines massive forces from a cast of over 40 as well as a plus size orchestra of well over 100 members of the Bochumer Symphoniker under the direction of Steven Sloane. The action takes place on a catwalk that runs the length of the Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory that passes through the center of a large riser, which holds the audience, at the end of the hall. Of course this riser rolls forward and back bringing action on the catwalk in and out of view while the orchestra is housed on two separate platforms on either side.

Why all the trouble you may ask? Isn’t this just an elaborate theatrical gimmick? Well, I don’t think so. Zimmermann intended his operatic adaptation of Lenz’ play to contain non-contemporaneous scenes that would play out simultaneously. While his own vision was somewhat hampered by the staging realities of the time, David Pountney attempts to reproduce some of this effect by spreading out players and sets over the catwalk often in advance of their actual performance. Characters walk past each other in highly choreographed scenes oblivious to each other's presence heightening the sense of alienation. The audience is then moved to parts of the action as it happens. It's sort of a linear motion version of Disneyworld's "Carousel of Progress". But while the idea may not be new, it is often stunningly effective, particularly in the opera’s final act which is both violent and sad. I was seated somewhat to the side of the entrance and the image of Marie, backgrounded by the orchestra, staggering away from her father who has failed to recognize her at the same pace as the audience pulling away from her is unforgettable.

It was also an evening that makes me wonder why 12-tone music didn’t gain wider public acceptance. Steve Sloane led a performance that was as lyrical, beautiful, and moving as just about anything I can think of. Yes, the music is often jarring, but the bleak and tragic world of Zimermann's opera is the ideal setting for it. The detail was wonderful and the amplification and acoustics in the hall seemed near miraculous for a space making its first forays as a music venue. As for the cast, there were remarkable singers and actors keeping the audience riveted throughout. Claudia Baraqinsky’s Marie was clear-toned and heartbreakingly believable. She is vulnerable without seeming overly naive and she whirled with ease through a large and technically difficult part. She was a perfect counterpoint to Claudio Otelli’s tragic and ultimately murderous Stolzius whose anger is palpable throughout the last two acts even before he explodes in a vengeful rage.

It's true that Zimmermann has chosen to eliminate much of the comedic elements of Lenz' original play, and make no mistake that this is difficulty and very adult material. (Particularly when Marie is brutally raped by Desportes' servant dressed in a Santa costume.) However, it is definitely an amazing and unique experience and will undoubtedly be one of the most satisfying operatic experiences of the year. There are four more performances that are mostly sold out. The moral of the story - more, at least sometimes, is in fact, more.

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Beautiful review, Brian! Makes me salivate even more.
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