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Boston Opera jousts with a challenging 'Die Soldaten'

Bernd Alois Zimmermann's ''Die Soldaten'' has been heralded as the greatest opera to be written since Alban Berg finished ''Wozzeck'' in 1921.

It was first thought to be unstageable; Zimmermann himself ideally visualized a production that would take place on numerous stages around the audience.

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This is just the sort of work Sarah Caldwell built her reputation on -- something deemed at best fiendishly difficult, at worst, unworkable (though it has had several triumphant productions in Germany by now). No wonder she chose the US premiere of this opera to open the 24th season of her Opera Company of Boston.

''Die Soldaten'' is, indeed, a formidable, even forbidding, work. Based on a play by Jakob Lenz, it deals with the collective thoughtlessness of authority machines -- in this case, of the military - and the havoc they wreak on individuals, lives, and the world in general.

Zimmermann fashioned his own libretto, heightening the callousness of the soldiery, the upper classes, and militarism in general. He has set it to a highly complex score that uses a full orchestra, a huge percussion section, and a gigantic organ. Serial in execution, the score does not so much set words to music as it embraces scenes in vast tonal tableaux.

Zimmermann conceived of a work that would blend the visual and aural into one overpowering whole. As can be heard on the recording of the opera available in most stores that deal in imported records (Wergo WER - 60030), it packs a tremendous wallop. In the course of the apparent onslaught, one hears bits of this and that - something familiar, something hinting at a known quantity, something actually quoted from another composer -- that creates a sort of mood and time window. Once the ear settles into the dense, serial idiom, it is downright surprising how the aural spread jells in the subconscious into something cohesive, coherent.

Unfortunately, the vocal line is neither gracious nor endearing. The melodies , such as they are, are bursting with gigantic leaps and put most of the singers at least some of the time, at the very edge (and even beyond the edge) of their actual range, or tessitura. After a while, one longs for something a bit more caressing, especially in the scenes of tenderness and humanity that are juxtaposed to the callous soldiers' scenes. At least in those scenes of brutality, the leaps and twists of melody add to the effect.

It can be argued that this sort of musical idiom is still too new to our ears to make full sense of. Some people who despised ''Wozzeck'' on first encounter became more tolerant with further listenings. And Berg's ''Lulu,'' which is more problematic (though no less stunning an achievement than ''Wozzeck''), has won further friends each time it gets produced in the opera houses of the world. More important, singers are becoming increasingly adept at making beautiful music out of Berg's singing line -- which is what the composer expected in the first place. Maybe someday we will hear such beauty where it is needed in Zimmerman.

The story deals, in brief, with Marie Wesener, who is seduced by a nobleman and officer, and begins an inexorable decline into disgrace and ruin. Her fate is contrasted to the callous indifference of the cruel, pleasure-seeking soldiery, which absorbs and protects its own.

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In the end, Marie endures ghastly horrors in a nightmare of multimedia madness, culminating in the final scene of the opera, the destruction of the world -- antihumanism in its ultimate, grisly statement.

But searchers of the ''Soldaten'' experience would have been advised to stay home with that Wergo three-record set (even with its all-German no-libretto leaflet), such was the havoc Miss Caldwell perpetrated on the work. It was orchestrally underprepared. So formidable a challenge needs quantities more rehearsal time so that the orchestra is not merely struggling to play notes, but is actually making music. And it needs a conductor up to the task, which Miss Caldwell, in this case, was not.

At least the singing was creditable and some of the performances were quite masterly. Standouts in the large cast included Phyllis Hunter (Marie Wesener), Richard Crist (Wesener), Timothy Noble (Major Haudy), John Brandstetter (Major Mary), Kerstin Meyer (Stolzius's Mother), RoseMarie Freni (Countess de la Roche). But this is not a singers' opera. It is a multimedia extravaganza that was betrayed at every point. David Sharir designed the visually interesting but ultimately unworkable set. The opera was sung in English, mostly intelligible from the third row.

Clearly, ''Die Soldaten'' deserves another try. It has moments of startling visceral and intellectual compulsion. It requires tremendous reserves of patience and funding to pull off. But, if reports from Germany are to be believed, it is an all-engrossing theatrical-operatic encounter unique in the annals of this still-kicking art form.

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