Sunday, 13 July 2014

Die Soldaten - Komische Oper, Berlin - 1 July 2014

Photos: Monika Rittershaus

Wesener, a fancy-goods dealer in Lille – Jens Larsen
Marie, his daughter– Susanne Elmark
Charlotte, his daughter – Karolina Gumos
Wesener’s Elderly Mother – Xenia Vyaznikova
Stolzius, draper in Armentières – Tom Erik Lie
Stolzius’s Mother – Christiane Oertel
Obrist, Count of Spannheim – Reinhard Mayr
Desportes, a nobleman – Martin Koch
Pirzel, a captain – Hans Schöpflin
Eisenhardt, a chaplain – Joachim Goltz
Haudy – Tomohiro Takada
Mary – Günter Papendell
1st Young Officer – Edwin Vega
2nd Young Officer – Alexander Kravets
3rd Young Officer – Máté Gál
Countess de la Roche – Noëmi Nadelmann
The Young Count, her son – Adrian Strooper
Andalusian/Madame Roux – Beate Vollack
Three Captains – Bogdan Taloş, Benjamin Mathis, Konrad Hofmann
Drunken Officer – Elias Reichert
Countess’s Servant – Wolfram Schneider-Lastin
Young Ensign – Benjamin Mathis
Soldiers Chorus – Jonas Olejniczak, Simon Ortmeyer, Guillaume Vairet, Christopher Lane, Robert Elibay-Hartog, Thomas Hartkopf, Christian Packbier, Simon Mehlich, Christoph Wiatre, Fabian Musick, Jonas Flemmerer, Emil Roijer, Phillippe Hillebrand, Nenad Ivkovic, Fabian Jud, Olaf Taube, Elias Reichert, Marcus Elsäßer

Conductor – Gabriel Feltz
Director – Calixto Bieito
Stage design – Rebecca Ringst
Costumes – Ingo Krügler
Dramaturgy – Beate Breidenbach, Pavel B. Jiracek
Lighting – Franck Evin
Video – Sarah Derendinger
Choreography – Beate Vollack

Given his reputation for controversy, Calixto Bieito could be said to have met his match with Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten. This giant of late-20th-century opera, composed in the early 1960s, was originally deemed too ambitious to stage, with its vast forces and simultaneous running of scenes. Yet it is now becoming almost a repertoire piece, with Bieito’s the third major production in as many years in central Europe, following stagings in Salzburg and Munich. This particular version is a co-production with Zürich Opera, where it had opened at the start of the season. Its Berlin run at the Komische Oper almost brought the drama into one’s lap. The pit was covered over to provide a performance space barely a metre from the front row and the huge orchestra took over the stage behind, ranged around Rebecca Ringst’s bright yellow scaffolding platforms. This lent a rare interaction between singers and instrumentalists, with sections of percussion on occasion being trundled forward on to the stage and characters entering beneath the orchestra or hovering in industrial-scale cradles above the musicians.

One of the masterstrokes of Zimmermann’s dramatic conception is the telling of a tragically human story in the context of a force – militarism – that seems to be defined by the composer’s dissonant, modernist style. But what both Bieito and the conductor Gabriel Feltz brought across in this staging was how much intimacy and delicacy there is to be found in both the story and music. There was no shortage of violence or nakedly displayed brutality, yet at the same time, characters emerged as human beings caught up in a tragedy, rather than mere cyphers. It helped that Bieito’s interpretation of the composer’s ‘yesterday, today and tomorrow’ for his milieu brought the action closer to our time than, say, Harry Kupfer’s bewigged characters in his Stuttgart staging (as seen on an Arthaus DVD release), where caricature seemed more of a danger. Here, from costumes and wigs, we seemed to be in the 1960s, the time of the work’s composition, rather than the period of Jakob Lenz’s Napoleonic-era original. The soldiers, therefore, were ‘modern’ enough to convey a brutality that some in this Berlin audience could conceivably have experienced first hand.

Video was a key component of the conception, with live handheld cameras often giving a voyeuristic intimacy to some of the exchanges, especially for action that took place away from the covered pit. And to discomfit us even more, a looped film of maggots devouring a dead rat filled the theatre for the duration of the interval.

It all provided a context in which Bieito seemed to be exploring parent–child relationships as much as the bigger picture. There was a suggestion that Marie’s father Wesener is more interested in his business activities than caring for his two daughters, or indeed his own mother, who is left to wander round on her own with a hospital drip. The embarrassingly wet Stolzius is patently over-mothered in the early scenes until he finally breaks free to take his revenge on his rival in love, Desportes. And the Countess de la Roche, meanwhile, has a blatantly erotic fixation on her son, fondling and kissing him in their big scene together in Act III – she certainly seems portrayed more as madame than protector when later taking care of Marie’s welfare.

Like Buchner/Berg’s Marie in Wozzeck, Lenz/Zimmermann’s Marie in this work is portrayed not as a helpless victim of circumstances but as a strong woman, who just happens to come up against the unscrupulous, dehumanised military world. Her succession of lovers – apart from the ever-faithful Stolzius – undoubtedly take advantage, but she’s the one in control until her destitution changes the balance of power, with the pessimistic suggestion that society – and particularly the military side of it – has irrevocably failed.

Danish coloratura soprano Susanne Elmark fully inhabited the role of Marie, for all the indignity of having to spend large swathes of the opera on stage in nothing but her underwear. Hers was a performance as brave dramatically as it was finely tuned vocally – no singer ever sounds completely comfortable with Zimmermann’s leaping vocal writing but she and others in the cast managed to make it appear as natural as more conventional melodic lines. There were no weak links among the supporting cast, though Tom Erik Lie’s sympathetically portrayed Stolzius and Noëmi Nadelmann’s man-eating Countess deserve special mention, as do the agile tenor of Martin Koch as Desportes and the seductive tones of Günter Papendell as Major Mary.

This, though, was a true company achievement, from solo roles and chorus of soldiers to the playing of the Komische Oper orchestra – overwhelmingly brutal and filigree by turns, all under Feltz’s masterly control.

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