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From Germany, an opera engulfed by shadows of war

Steven Sloane
The Boston Globe

NEW YORK - In Theodor Adorno's famous dictum, writing poetry "after Auschwitz" was a barbaric notion, but what about opera after the war? The genre was pronounced dead by modernists who wanted a clean break from the past. Pierre Boulez called for the destruction of all opera houses as relics of an obsolete tradition. Some went as far as implicating music itself in the great German plunge into the abyss. This bountiful well, they suspected, had been poisoned.

But the composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann drew his own conclusions. Born in 1918 and briefly drafted into the German army at the outset of World War II, he developed a highly personal version of the 12-tone musical language. In the late 1950s, he put it to the service of an immensely scaled opera, "Die Soldaten," which was hailed after its 1965 premiere as the most important German opera since those of Alban Berg.

Sarah Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston gave its American premiere in 1982, New York City Opera mounted it in 1991, and now the work has returned to life as the capstone of this year's Lincoln Center Festival. On Monday night, some 1,000 listeners packed the vast drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory and encountered a musical and theatrical alloy of extreme potency. The four decades since the creation of this opera have seen countless artistic responses to war, but "Soldaten" retains an uncanny ability to stun its listeners. The work's music ensnares the ears from its opening bars, while the anguished drama on stage depicts a society in which a thin veneer of bourgeois propriety masks deeper drives toward unrelenting cruelty and violence.

The title is in a way misleading. There are no war scenes, and Zimmermann's own libretto, based on Jakob Lenz's play of 1776, traces the downfall of a merchant's daughter, Marie, who is drawn into a web of romantic entanglements with a band of callous underemployed soldiers. Step by step, they ruin her reputation, brutally rape her, and reduce her to grinding poverty. In the devastating final scene, her own father mistakes her for just another beggar in the streets.

The toxins unleashed by war, the opera suggests, do not disappear in peacetime but constantly simmer beneath the surface, and it is this sense of seething, subliminal tension that pervades every scene of the opera like a vapor. Zimmermann's score is full of brilliantly restless and volatile music, sometimes overwhelming in its massed spasms of orchestral dissonance but also at times surprisingly intimate, lyrical, and scaled to the human dimensions of the unfolding drama. In scenes where Marie flirts with her suitors, she sometimes sings in leaping yet highly florid vocal lines, suggesting a kind of atonal coloratura. References to Bach flash from the orchestral depths, a jazz combo appears out of nowhere, and a trio of women pay a kind of warped tribute to Strauss's "Rosenkavalier." But mostly Zimmermann's music, written for a gigantic orchestra with satellite percussion, feels like an utterly original language that picks up precisely where Berg, who died in 1935, left off. This is surgingly expressive, post-Romantic atonality retrofitted for a much darker world.

Over the years, the opera's reputation has been dogged by the idea that its size and technical demands make it unperformable, but the stagings of recent decades should put that myth to rest. The current production, imported from the Ruhr Triennale festival and directed by David Pountney, is arrestingly true to the spirit if not the letter of Zimmermann's score. The immense vaulted drill hall conjures just the right ambiance of fallen machine-age grandeur, and the space itself is sliced lengthwise down the middle by a long and narrow stage over which the entire audience slowly migrates on a giant moving platform.

This could have easily felt gimmicky but Pountney and his creative team use the mobility judiciously to bring the viewer close to the action, or to pull back, effectively "zooming out" to provide a striking panorama of the multiple stage pictures being built simultaneously. The superb-sounding Bochum Symphony Orchestra, masterfully directed by Steven Sloane, was mostly seated on a stationary platform off to the left. As the audience glided forward and back, the music seemed to hover there in space. You passed through it like a force field.

Claudia Barainsky as Marie, Claudio Otelli as her first love, Stolzius, and Kathryn Harries as Stolzius's mother, were among the standouts in an extremely committed cast that sang these angular, punishing vocal parts with unflagging intensity. There are occasional moments of lightness - including the only 12-tone sponge fight you are ever likely to see - but they pass quickly before the bleakness returns. The rape scene is searing in its brutality. The opera ends with a military march that slowly overpowers everything else, and leads to a coda full of low brass tones and human screaming.

If there is any glimmer of redemptive possibility in this opera, it is in the sparks of the compassion its creator seemed to feel toward some of these characters, and in his deep rage against the injustice of their plight. Zimmermann never wrote another opera, and it is indeed hard to picture where one might go artistically from here. The composer's biographic trajectory, on the other hand, is less surprising - he suffered from severe depression and committed suicide in 1970. Leaving the opera on Monday, I thought of Walter Benjamin's description of a man drifting on a shipwreck, climbing up a mast he knew was crumbling, but from which he might signal for his rescue.