At intermission during Die Soldaten an old friend of mine, a sculptor I’ve known on and off for (can it really be?) 40 years broke into a conversation I was having to ask an urgent question. She’s not a classical music person, and had read in the program book that the score is 12-tone music. And what she asked was: Is this 12-tone thing the reason why the piece is so horribly bad?
Well, no, it’s not, but I was grateful for my old friend’s honesty (and her curiosity and sense of fairness), because the opera — for all its great prestige, and despite the advance excitement for this production at the Lincoln Center Festival — really is bad, at least in this production. Laughable, in fact, I thought. To call it obvious would be like calling Bush a bad president, something so plain that it should hardly need to be said. The story shows us our corrupt society — despicable soldiers who seem to live to corrupt women, a woman who of course is duly ruined, abusive family life, scathing hierarchies of social class.
Nothing new there, and nothing painted in anything but the plainest colors, without a hint of nuance, depth, or character. The score (despite all kinds of compositional complexities) mostly screams “LOOK HOW HORRIBLE IT ALL IS!!!!!” though from time to time it quiets down, to as if to say, “Well, here’s a tender moment, but you see it’s all STILL very horrible.”
Possibly we weren’t hearing how the opera really goes. Because of the complex production (more on that below), there were monitors throughout the space, showing the conductor, Stephen Sloane,, so the singers could see him, and as I watched the monitors (anything for some relief from what was happening on stage), I saw Sloane conducting beats, not mood or phrasing (or, in a word, music), which may have simplified the job of keeping the complex score together,, but wasn’t helpful for giving it shape or character. Harry Curtis, the “stage conductor” (as he was billed in the program book) conducted a smaller ensemble on the opposite side of the space, and on the monitors he did seem to be conducting music, with sensitive and fluid movements of his hands, though I’ll grant that his job seemed vastly easier than Sloane’s.
But to get back to the piece: The silliest, most obvious moment was the ending. The ruined woman (and I have to ask: does the opera really make us sympathize with her, or is there, in spite of the composer’s professed point of view, an element of male voyeurship as we watch her getting raped and ruined) is reduced to begging in the streets. She meets her father, who doesn’t recognize her. The pain and irony of that is underlined and underlined and underlined, while it’s going on. And then we have a long and deafening barrage of cruel percussion, and then — the cherry topping off the sundae — an orchestral scream.
I was reminded of the ending of M. Night Shyamalan’s recent dud, The Happening, which also ends with something so obvious it’s laughable — laughable above all because it’s a kind of ending that I’ve seen countless times in horror films (the horror isn’t over! here it comes again!), but this time presenting at such ponderous and clueless length that you’d swear Shyamalan had no idea that others had done the same thing many times before him. But at least, when I saw the film, the audience did laugh, not just at the ending, but pretty much throughout.
(I also was reminded of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, which much like Die Soldaten sets out to portray decadence, but so cluelessly that it falls completely flat.)
My wife, Anne Midgette, reviewing Die Soldaten in the Washington Post, says much the same thing as I’ve saying, though I hasten to note that everything I’m writing here is my opinion, and not necessarily hers. I felt in the end that I was seeing (and above all hearing) a living example of Adorno’s famous take on atonal music, but now reduced to parody. Adorno said (especially in The Philosophy of New Music) that the dissonance in atonal music represented frozen pain, and that this was good, because the pain was the pain of living in the world around us, a world so horrible that pain (along with rage) would be the only sane reaction anyone could have to it. Which then would mean — as Adorno strongly says — that atonal music is the only proper music anyone could write. Die Soldaten really did seem to be a parody of this, the pain exposed as all there is in life, masking even any subtlety in how we might react to it. It’s as if someone rewrote Adorno’s complex, probing, sometimes even playful prose in words of one syllable.
I also wondered if the opera has such great prestige in part because it’s 12-tone — though by now you’d think we just could treat 12-tone music as part of history, something we can like or not (I’m for it, myself), without treating it with any special respect.
As for the production, which used a huge performing space, and put both audience and orchestra(s) on platforms set on huge, expensive tracks, so the orchestra and audience could move — every penny spent on it was wasted, if you ask me. The production, first of all, was terribly conventional (see Anne’s review for her detailed explication of that), its few attempts at non-realistic evocation (the soliders entering with curling movements on the stage, holding chairs above their heads) looking pretty silly if they’re compared with truly innovative staging, of the kind I’ve seen (to cite just one example) in Meredith Monk’s big theater pieces, like Quarry.
But mainly I thought the production reified the piece — made it stiff and motionless, a monument erected to itself. This, in a work that to start with takes itself far too seriously, isn’t helpful. Much was made, in the program book, of the chance to make the opera intimate, by moving the audience close to certain scenes on stage, but at best that would have seemed voyeurlike, not intimate, and in practice only served to show us unmistakably how conventionally operatic the staging was. The only hope for Die Soldaten, I thought, would be to put it on the stage as simply as possible, with real emotion (instead of monumental simulations of emotion), so that any spontaneity in the piece, anything honest and original, could find its place, and maybe even touch us.
(The title of this post, “Terminal Prestige,” comes from a famous essay by Susan McClary, the musicologist, about the one-time dominance of atonal music among American composers.)