Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Raging fires

Predictably, Die Soldaten is dividing people. Obviously I stand on the pro side, and very much so, but others didn't care for the show. Anne Midgette's reaction in the Washington Post is interesting.

I won't comment on the specifically musical criticism, not being equipped to do so, so I'll focus on the content and staging. First, she's wrong right off the bat when she says "This is a work that is ready to rebel, even if it is not quite sure against what." Alois Bernd Zimmermann knows exactly what he's criticizing and rebelling against, and he often explicitly states it: the abuse of women by men.

"The exorbitant outlay for the movable seats proved a tremendously expensive gimmick: Pountney could not think of anything more creative to do than move the audience to a different part of the runway for each scene," Midgette writes. Actually, I found the device tremendously effective, and used very well (the seats don't move "for each scene," as she writes). It allows Pountney to play on both space and time, providing a sense of depth as we watch several actions happening either at once or at different moments down the 260-foot length of the runway. It also allows him to explore both a sense of crushing grandeur and intimacy; in that way, the moving seats function like a camera, zooming in and out of particular scenes.

Midgette also says that having Marie raped by men in Santa Claus suits is too obvious an image—but if this stuff was that obvious and easy to come up with, we'd see it (or something similar) more often on our stages. And we just don't. (I'm surprised she doesn't mention the stunning, utterly terrifing pig masks. Obvious, perhaps, but very, very effective—they really scared me.) Those images may look obvious because they are in such adequation with the music and themes, but they really are not that simple. A good director surprises you but also makes you think that what he does is inevitable—which for some may look obvious. Achieving both at the same time is very very difficult, but that's what Pountney did.

That rape scene, in fact, seems to be a problem for many. But it is as horrible as it needs to be. It is nauseating, but not in a way that made me despise the creative team. Unlike torture porn in contemporary horror movies, which makes me find the directors abhorrent, that scene made me despise what the characters did, not what the director did. My esteemed colleague Steve Smith pointed out that the scene doesn't exist in the original, or rather that it happens offstage. Well, it does exist then—Pountney just chose to make us see it. Yes, it is a deliberate decision to hit the audience over the head, to push our collective face into a pit of abjection, but I'd argue that as an audience, we need to go there, we need to descend into stomach-churning hell.

Finally, that Die Soldaten has provoked such arguments is the final proof, if needed, that it has fulfilled its purpose as a piece of art. If you want lukewarm, you can have it any day on any stage in New York. And me, I hate lukewarm.

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