OPERA Die Soldaten ENO, London

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The Independent Culture
Bernd Alois Zimmermann's four-act opera Die Soldaten has become a legend - a benchmark of expressionist extremes, demanding the near-impossible from singers, a huge orchestra, electronics and elaborate multi-media staging, sometimes with three scenes enacted at once. English National Opera's production, the first by a British company, was unveiled on Tuesday, and if the music seemed as formidable as its reputation, the piece as theatre emerged as nothing very alarming. Partly that's because multiplicity has become banal - our senses are bombarded constantly. And partly that's because the producer David Freeman has the main action done with energetic naturalism, with only one set, a great war-torn ruin, modified by minimal props and toy proscenium arches which descend to frame the domestic scenes. The designer is Sally Jacobs. The evening lasts just under two-and-a-half hours with interval.

Jakob Lenz's play, on which the opera is based, was set in his own time, the late 18th century, and drew on his humiliating experiences as a civilian servant on the fringes of the French army. Zimmermann described the time of his opera as yesterday, today and tomorrow, and ENO's production looks very much like today, with film projections of contemporary horrors and the gory habits of wildlife pointing up Zimmermann's observation that Lenz's characters were "caught in a web of constraints that led them inexorably, though they were more innocent than guilty, to rape, murder, suicide and, in the end, to total annihilation". Which prompts a final theatrical effect of lighting and film that may be obvious but is certainly effective, and in tune with the reductive resolution in the orchestra.

If Die Soldaten doesn't tell a story, as the composer suggested (though it does), and is more a situation, it's very like that of Wedekind's and Berg's Lulu. Marie, the central character in Zimmermann's opera, is a girl who doesn't know what she's doing, and ditches a likely husband for more glamorous offers from military gents, which leads her to ruin. She may be silly, but Lisa Saffer makes her a right pain from the start, which is hard to avoid, perhaps, when her vocal line is so stratospherically hysterical. All the women in the large cast sang with immense confidence on Tuesday, but Marie Angel as Countess de la Roche showed quite extraordinary stamina and clarity in her extended solo scene in Act 3. Most serial music of Zimmermann's vintage tends to be fragmented and short-winded, but he achieved, particularly in this part of Die Soldaten, considerable sustaining power.

Among the men, Jon Garrison as Marie's seducer, Baron Desportes (described in the libretto as a very high tenor), alone has to match the women's vocal pyrotechnics, while her first and humblest admirer, Stolzius, sung by the baritone Roberto Salvatori, has more human music as well as a sympathetic character to flesh out. But everyone, tossed on the tide of a vast and threatening orchestral ocean, seems pretty helpless, and since they have virtually no lyrical music, you're never tempted to feel for them - you observe with more than a touch of Schadenfreude. Besides, Freeman's barrack and nightclub business is so eye-catching, there's every appeal to the audience's baser instincts. We're all pigs in this swill.

The famed stylistic multiplicity of Zimmermann's music is far less striking than its reputation, particularly in 1996, when no musical orthodoxy prevails. A little bit of jazz and one or two chorale-like passages, heavily scored with lots of brass, don't do much to break the relentless cast of music which is violent and impersonal, but impressively powerful. Elgar Howarth's conducting and the playing of the English National Opera orchestra showed no sign of flinching.

Further perfs: 23, 26, 28 Nov, 5, 10, 12, Dec (0171-632 8300)

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