December 14, 2017
Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Colón’s Die Soldaten, a challenge well met

A scene from Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten in the version staged at the Colón Theatre.
A scene from Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten in the version staged at the Colón Theatre.
A scene from Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten in the version staged at the Colón Theatre.
By Pablo Bardin
For the Herald
Latin American première of Zimmermann’s opera a necessary and powerful experience

The Colón presented this week the Latin American première of one of the most complex operas of the 20th century: Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten (“The Soldiers”). First, it’s worth stressing that its presentation was an audacious bet by Lopérfido; it is also the only première of the operatic subscription series. Discarding the utopic original wishes of the composer (his recommended staging was never done), the revised work nevertheless needs the full resources of an important opera house.

My reference is the DVD of Stuttgart Opera’s 1989 staging by Harry Kupfer, conducted by Bernhard Kontarsky. Although their stage is smaller than the Colón’s, the set by Wolf Münzner was built on three tiers allowing, when required, the simultaneity of three different actions. And his costumes accorded with the original ambience of the Lenz text, written in 1776, so the Countess, e.g., was dressed as in those Pre-Revolutionary times an aristocrat was, with a big hoop-skirt.

Zimmermann has conserved the stilted, ceremonious aspects of Lenz’s text. We are still in the Ancien Régime and forms were kept, even in battle. That’s why Kupfer (an avantgarde régisseur) respected dressing codes: because they agree with the words. In the Colón staging, director Pablo Maritano, as so many nowadays, transports us to Zimmermann’s time, and that way the text clashes with what we see.

Mind you, those decadent years pictured by Lenz nurtured snake eggs that would hatch shortly after. Lenz was part of the Sturm und Drang movement and he saw the future as Büchner did years later in his Woyzeck. It isn’t irrelevant to know that Lenz died insane and Zimmermann committed suicide. It’s worth mentioning that Wolfgang Rihm wrote Lenz, an interesting chamber opera on the writer’s final period; it was performed at the San Martín some years ago. And that Manfred Gurlitt, a neglected composer, wrote his own Wozzeck (1926) and Die Soldaten (1930).

Of course, Berg’s Wozzeck was a great influence on Zimmermann, and there are several parallels (homages, in fact) between what may be the most important opera of the 20th century and Die Soldaten, although they are very contrasting: Berg wrote a social drama, while Zimmermann went for a dystopian indictment of the brutal human race. He made me think of the Resnais film in which Henri Laborit insisted on the influence of the reptilian part of our brain; evolution is very slow, it is still there and leads to unspeakable acts.

Half a century has elapsed since the première of Die Soldaten. It retains its power to shock and impact, but it doesn’t move as Wozzeck does. Strange, Marie is the main female role in both. Musically, Die Soldaten is fully dodecaphonic, while most of Wozzeck isn’t; both are based on formal structures that are only apparent to the studious scholar. In Die Soldaten, the brutality is much more explicit and the search for effect is evident.

In this opera, the soldiers are all beasts; only one voice admonishes them: Eisenhardt, the army chaplain, tells them: “If these girls are whores, it is because you made them so.” Marie’s sister, Charlotte, warns her against officer Desportes, but no help comes from their father or from her fiancé Stolzius’ mother. However, I don’t find Marie innocent; she is coquettish and is easily conquered by Desportes.

The vocality is often quite unpleasant and badly written, with constant unnecessary jumps and absurd insistence on the highest range. There’s very little lyricism. The main musical quality is the handling of the huge orchestra with domineering percussion, and the ability to superimpose as much as three simultaneous vocal monologues and dialogues, each with a different rhythm. Also some moments of spatiality. And the pandemonium of the great soldier scene really stuns.

Swiss conductor Baldur Brönnimann worked hard and, after weeks of intensive rehearsals, got very good results from orchestra and stage. However, there was a bit of a blunder: in the scene between the Countess and her son, something went wrong (tenor or conductor) and the scene had to restart. The six foreign singers made their local debut. Susanne Elmark was an admirable Marie; she looks the part and has the vocal agility to vanquish the highest range. And she acts with intensity.

Tom Randle (Desportes) was taxed by the tremendous demands but did well. Frode Olsen (Wesener, Marie’s father) showed authority and a solid bass-baritone. Leigh Melrose was an anguished Stolzius and Julia Riley an adequate Charlotte. Only Noemí Nadelmann was below par as the Countess, her voice alarmingly frayed.

Apart from Santiago Ballerini’s sole intervention as the son of the Countess (perhaps not his fault), the Argentines were remarkably good, especially Gustavo Gibert (Eisenhardt), Alejandro Meerapfel (Captain Mary) and Eugenia Fuente (Stolzius’ mother). Nazareth Aufe managed with well-placed voice the extremely high range of Captain Pirzel. In the picture were Virginia Correa Dupuy (Wesener’s Mother), Luciano Garay (Captain Haudy) and Christian De Marco (Colonel Obrist).

I agree with what Lopérfido said in a recent interview with the Herald: “Enrique Bordolini has built a great iron structure: it is a formidable stage design.” It bears some resemblance to what La Fura del Baus did in Enesco’s Oedipe. Those cubicles in several tiers allow Maritano to fill them with vivid pictures. However, although the stage director disclaims that his staging stresses graphic depictions, there’s plenty of faked sex acts and most are beside the point.

The characters’ interaction was observed with acuity, and some scenes were stunning. The smallness of the cubicles was an obstacle at times. The costumes by Sofía Di Nunzio were quite good if you accept the transposition in time. The added videos didn’t make much of a difference.

All in all, a necessary venture and an experience to have, though you need strong nerves. Some traditional members of the audience left in the interval, but most stayed and applauded enthusiastically at the end.

Where and when

Teatro Colón (Cerrito 628, July 19 at 8pm and July 17 at 5pm, plus a performance on July 20 at 8pm for the Colón Contemporano subscription. Tickets available at the venue and on

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