Words like "genius" and "great"are thrown about regularly these days, but in the case of Die Soldaten at Lincoln Center Festival, they should be used literally. If you're reading these lines, you are likely to have an interest in the arts, so the message is simple: go.
Every time I'm brought down by one more mediocre, bland, utterly pointless show—they are even more lethal than the truly bad ones—I wonder why I'm putting myself through this rigmarole over and over again. Why, why do I feel the urge to stagger back home at 11pm on that slowpoke F train after one more disappointing evening out? It's because as with everything, your chances of hitting on something good are infinitesimal. Just ask anybody trying to date in New York. The odds are against you, so you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find the one prince—in the arts, something that transports you to another realm. You might call it transcendence, and when you find it, it makes up for all these wasted hours. That is what Die Soldaten provided on Thursday night, when I was lucky to see a dress rehearsal of that mammoth piece.
On paper, Alois Bernd Zimmermann's 1950s opera looks pretty austere, and it is, of course: 12-tone music isn't my idea of an elevator to bliss; add a storyline dealing with the use and abuse of a young woman by various men in wartime, and Die Soldaten had the making of a big spoon of castor oil. Honestly, I think it'd still be that for me without this new extraordinary staging (I can't say I will ever listen to the music at home for instance).
Lincoln Center Festival threw its financial might behind importing David Pountney's awe-inspiring production from the 2006 Ruhr Triennale, in which the audience sits on metal bleachers that slowly move along a gigantically long stage—in our case, set up in the main hall of the Park Avenue Armory—while the no-less gigantic 110-person orchestra sits on the side. (This helpful video preview explains the basic idea.)
As we made our way along the stem of the T-shaped stage, an optical illusion made it seem as if it was the actors who were on a treadmill while we were static. Pountney would place his cast along the whole length, making for an incredible impression of depth of space and even time. But the large scale was only part of the picture: The particular genius of Pountney's concept is that you get both a sense of mind-numbing grandeur and, because the action moves in and out of focus, so to speak, one of crushing intimacy—we were lucky enough to sit right next to the stage and so we were just about eight feet away from the cast at some of the most harrowing moments.
Die Soldaten is an ultra-rare case of a highly conceptual staging that brings everything out of the work and more, transforming the way we even consider the interconnection between art and life. It threw my head into a major Exorcist 360 spin. I'm pretty sure that I forgot to breathe during the last ten minutes, when the gruesome plot reaches its apex and at least four drummers in the orchestra are going at it in unison (the din was so ferocious that I could see the other musicians covering up their ears with their hands). A local director I know was sitting a few rows ahead of us and looked shellshocked afterwards.