Sunday, June 06, 2004


I've just become acquainted with Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten courtesy of Kultur's video of the Stuttgart Opera's production from 1989. Before my viewing I reflected on something Adorno had said with typically Adornonian heavyhandedness in his 1969 essay "Opera and the Long-Playing Record": "It has been more than thirty years since any operas have been written for opera houses that--if one is allowed to insist on such high standards--manifested something of world spirit [Weltgeist]." Now, as the premiere of Die Soldaten had taken place in 1965, and Adorno had almost surely at least heard of it, I wondered whether he was lumping in Zimmermann's opus in with these latter-day Weltgeist-benighted operas. I can now only guess that he was. Yes, at the level of compositional technique Die Soldaten seemed to be modern enough, at least to my my relatively unschooled ears, inasmuch as I noticed passages that obviously showed the imprint of Webern (passages in which, for example, a woodwind solo phrase would be followed by a col legno ensemble string phrase bearing no obvious resemblance to it in melody or phrasing). But practically from curtain rise to curtain fall the Weltgeist remained elusively out of reach. Adorno would of course have forbidden himself the use of that "almost," as for him the notion of a partially-Weltgeist-manifesting work was as nonsensical as the notion of a partially-haunted house. But as for my part I think an "almost" is not amiss in this case, I should probably explain what I understand Weltgest-affirmation to consist in, in case my understand of it diverges from Adorno's. For me, a good rule of thumb for testing whether a work is in touch with the Weltgeist is to ask whether it has transformed my picture of the epoch [Zeitbild] that engendered it or merely reaffirmed my already-extant picture of that epoch. In saying this, I should not be misconstrued as claiming that if a work makes use of or is partially constituted by the stereotypical motifs of its epoch we should assume that it fails to manifest the Weltgeist. One of Die Soldaten's boosters--I can no longer who, blamed the infrequency of its productions on its distinctly 1960s character. But this bit of reportage hardly sufficed to persuade me to write off Die Soldaten in advance as being out of touch with the Weltgeist, as I know only too well how often people mistake the most trivial and inconsequential elements of a work for its most essential elements, so that a work dating from the 1960s need make only the most fleeting reference to LSD or the Beatles in order to qaulify as a product very much of its time--meaning a work merely of its time. In fact there are very few such stereotypical flags of the 60s in Die Soldaten. Nonetheless in a more than superficial way, Die Soldaten is a product of its time.

At first, I thought it might turn out otherwise--and in this expectation inheres my qualifying "almost"--for the visual and aural spectacle that commenced with the rising of the curtain was like nothing I had ever heard or seen before. Peter Quantrill, in his MW review of the DVD of this production, describes Zimmermann's overture or prelude as a "five-minute orchestral pile-up that summarises and seems to reject all the music written before it." More disturbing for me than the music itself, though, was the choreography that it accompanied: at the commencement of the opening bars, the cast, numbering in the dozens and assembled en masse on the two-tiered stage, stood or sat fixed in waxwork-like attitudes; gradually, as the music progressed the figures were disturbed by its irregular, unpredictable rhythm, first only mildly and in unison, as though actuacted by the movement of a wildly erratic clockwork mechanism; and eventually jerkily, convulsively, and in chaos, as though each of them was being jolted by a sporadically administered electrical shock. Above all else what made this ballet mechanique so disturbing for me was that I didn't know when it would end--the thought that these figures could go on behaving in this way indefinitely without betraying the slightest trace of any recognizably human quality was downright horrifying. (Admittedly this was not an effect that could be reproduced in subseuqent viewings.) Inasmuch as this pantomime constituted an "advance"--if such it can be called--on the merely depersonalized characterization of expressionism, the form of characterization exhibited in Wozzeck and Lulu while resonating with none of my poetic stereotypes of the 60s, for its duration Die Soldaten appeared to to me to be in touch with the Weltgeist. That all changed with the commencement of the first scene proper. Now, throughout the prelude, which had ended with everyone collapsing into some sort of mass coma, the only figures exempt from participation in the pantomime had been those of Marie and Charlotte, who remained frozen at the center of the lower stage; now with the sounding of the first chord (at least I think it was a chord) of the first scene they sprang into life--albeit only with what little life was required for a fairly static scene centering around the composition of a letter. The first bit of dialogue, an aria given over entirely to lugubrious metaphysical speculation, came from Charlotte. The following line is characteristic of the whole: "If man knew what was to be found at the depths of his heart he'd wish he'd never had one." A powerful beginning--the only trouble is, it's not to be found at the corresponding point in the text of the play by J. M .R. Lenz that serves as the basis for Zimmermann's libretto. I don't know if Zimmermann transplanted this bit of dialogue from some other place in Lenz's writings or whether he composed it himself. I lean towards thinking he composed it himself, as the notion that something might be concealed in the depths of the heart seems intrinsically psychoanalytic in character. Such forced anachronism would certainly be in keeping with Zimmermann's practice throughout the opera. Not that at any other point he tampers so conspicuously with the dialogue or the action, save in one critical part of the last scene; for the most part, indeed, Zimmermann follows the Bergian precedent of using dialogue drawn verbatim from the original play in relation to which the libretto thus stands as an abridgement rather than an adaptation. No, most of Zimmermann's tamperings take a form that would go unnoticed by someone who was encountering this work for the first time blindfolded, courtesy, say, of the Telarc CD release of this production. It is, in fact, in his staging of the play that Zimmerman most evidently capitulates to the stereotypically 60s.


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