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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    




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RECORD OF THE MONTH

Bernd Alois ZIMMERMANN (1918-70)
Die Soldaten, an opera in four acts after the play by Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz
Mark Munkittrick (Wesener)
Nancy Shade (Marie Wesener)
Milagro Vargas (Charlotte, her sister)
Grace Hoffmann (Wesener’s mother)
Michael Ebbecke (Stolzius, her betrothed)
Elsie Maurer (Stolzius’s mother)
William Cochran (Desportes)
Alois Treml (Obrist)
Gregor Brodocz (Gamekeeper)
Guy Renard (Pirzel)
Karl-Friedrich Dürr (Eisenhardt)
Klaus Hirte (Haudy)
Raymond Wolansky (Major von Mary)
Ursula Koszut (Countess de la Roche)
Jerrold van der Schaaf (the young Count)
Johannes Eidloth, Robert Wörle, Helmut Holzapfel (Young Officers)
Stuttgart State Opera Chorus, Staatsorchester Stuttgart/Bernhard Kontarsky
Harry Kupfer (director)
Wolf Münzner (sets and costumes)
Hans Hulscher (video director)
ARTHAUS DVD 100 270 [111’]

The sad state of Die Soldaten as an opera more known of than known may largely be due to its composer’s ultimate refusal to face life as it is depicted in this, his magnum opus. His suicide in 1970 denied us at least a second opera, Medea, which he had gone some way to sketching. Had he determined to live he would have certainly been able, somewhat like Wagner (a comparison he would have loathed), to drive through his dreams to create ‘total theatre’.

Multimedia wasn’t even a gleam in a PR director’s eye when Zimmermann started to sketch the opera in 1957 after Lenz’s anti-capitalist play from almost two centuries earlier (1775). His aim: ‘To concentrate… all theatrical media for the purpose of communication in a place created specially for this purpose.’ The commissionees at Cologne Opera House, Oscar Schuh and Wolfgang Sawallisch, were having none of it. Having simplified its music and dramaturgy in a revision, Michael Gielen took on the premiere in Cologne in 1965. In London, ENO was the first to stage it only five years ago or so (small wonder, considering a run in Munich in 1969 required 33 orchestral rehearsals and 377 for the soloists, according to Grove) and even then they shirked many of the demands made by the score. The orchestra, including piano, harpsichord and organ, spilled into two subsidiary rooms and was broadcast from there. Director David Freeman could pay little more than lip service to the demands for split-level staging and incorporation of film and cinematic techniques on the operatic stage.

Fortunately the money was evidently around in Stuttgart in 1989, for Harry Kupfer appears to have realised at least some of Zimmermann’s theatrical fantasies with startling success. I say ‘appears’, for the stage is often so underlit that it is nigh-impossible to work out more than the movement of bodies, never mind which ones or where they are. It is offset by the brilliant clarity of sound, noticeable from the very start in the five-minute orchestral pile-up that summarises and seems to reject all the music written before it. Voices project clearly over the top of a texture almost permanently dense. The flip side of such stridency is that hardly anyone ever sings quietly; but with the complexity of what they must sing, it is a miracle that they all project both text and music with such confidence. A small example, from the first appearance of the Countess de la Roche, in Scene 4 of Act 3; with a lyrical, albeit unpredictable melody she sings of her sadness at her son’s unwillingness to trust her any more. This gives way to spoken reflection and anger in sprechstimme before returning to the lyrical vein – and all in the space of 30 seconds or so.

The work is often spoken of as an anti-war tract, which it is – if that’s all you want it to be. The central character is Marie, a nice girl who wants to better herself and, in an effort to please her father and marry above her class, accepts the sinister advances of Desportes, the first of several officer-soldiers who will toy with her and ultimately reject her. In the meanwhile she must break off her engagement to the innocent Stolzius. As Marie is reduced to a sexually complaisant plaything for Desportes, Stolzius gets his revenge by becoming the manservant of Desportes’ friend Major de Mary and poisoning his soup before committing suicide. Her own father does not recognise Marie as she begs in the street; her identity becomes lost in the work’s extraordinary close, a cinematic and sonic collage depicting military brutality.

It may come as little surprise to those who know Wozzeck that Georg Buchner admired and was influenced by Lenz. Zimmermann too took his cue from Berg by building the opera in formally archaic blocks, of Chaconnes, Ricercars, Toccatas and Nocturnes. In both music and dramaturgy, Die Soldaten winds itself around Wozzeck and Lulu like a wary serpent, entirely its own creature. Its musical eclecticism and complexity come to a head at the end of Act 2. Marie and Desportes couple in orgiastic oohs and aahs as Stolzius’s mother tells the young soldier in 12-tone leaps of disapproval that he is being played for a fool. To stage left, Marie’s grandmother sings a folk song with the prophetic line, ‘Some day your cross will come to you’; and over it all a chorale from the St Matthew Passion combines with the harmonies below in unpredictable and genuinely beautiful interaction. One of the great moments in opera of the last century.

Taking the voices one by one rather misses the point of the unorthodox demands made upon them; they make nice sounds when they are able to, but best of all, they are entirely committed to the piece and fluent in its language. Stockhausen disciple Bernhard Kontarsky somehow binds the whole together with nonchalant authority. The closing tableau in Kupfer’s production is worth the price of the DVD alone.

There isn’t much in the way of competition; the one readily available CD set, on Teldec, amounts to a soundtrack of this production and, as is currently the topsy-turvy way, costs more than this DVD. For those who want to hear Die Soldaten this is the only game in town – and its dark message and unsettling music demand to be heard.

Peter Quantrill


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