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Notes from the 2012 Salzburg Festival ( 12 )

Bernd Alois Zimmermann • Die Soldaten

For discriminating and adventurous ears, open to unusual and disturbing experiences in an opera house, Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten in Alvis Hermanis’ production was the undisputed highlight of the 2012 Festival. With its five performances heavily advertised in every program book of the “Salzburg contemporary” series and by a school class or two that had come through town invited to join, the Felsenreitschule was well filled for the third performance (Friday, August 24th), but still with room for me to spread out to the left and right of my seat.

In the enlarged pit sat a very sizable fraction of the Vienna Philharmonic, with instruments sprawling all over the Felsenreitschule and whole batteries of percussion and harp and organs to the left and right. Some of them looked excited about Zimmermann, others less so, but despite the VPO’s reputation for being unenthusiastic about contemporary music, they helped create a thrilling, chilling evening, guided by the truly stimulated, multi-tasking Ingo Metzmacher, who conducted from the score roughly the size of four Manhattan Yellow Pages laid out in a square.

On stage a reproduction of the arches of the Felsenreitschule are placed in front of the real thing. Behind those arches seven horses—the most expensive stars of the production—are led back and forth. The backlit windows—blind first, later revealing—show the sufferings of a military hospital, full of madness and shell shock. Zimmermann wrote his libretto for Die Soldaten based exactingly on the play by the same name of 18th century author Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz; both had witnessed war first hand and dealt with their experience in their respective works.

Zimmermann sets his opera ‘on any given day, today, yesterday, tomorrow’. In this production Hermanis’ sets and Eva Dessecker’s costumes place the story solidly during World War I, which adds to the dialogue a wonderfully archaic and distanced quality. It also draws (unnecessarily obvious) connections to Wozzeck, which are echoed in the name of the title character Marie, the number of (15) scenes, and superficially in the music. Wozzeck is a post-romantic opera that limps into modernity, Die Soldaten in Zimmermann’s solid 20th century idiom of advanced serialism. At its conservative end, Die Soldaten has parallels to Berg at his most serial. Other parallels are a propensity for both Berg (though not in Wozzeck) and Zimermann to augment their work with quotes from Bach (same as in the Ecclesiastical Action) and both make extensive use of traditional forms.

Zimmermann aficionados have claimed that Die Soldaten is the most, perhaps only important opera since Wozzeck; a rather ideological viewpoint, even if you qualify the statement and confine it only to German operas. At the very least, there is some competition: Król Roger, Věc Makropulos, Mahagonny, Lady Macbeth, Lulu, Capriccio, Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, The Rake’s Progress, Turn of the Screw, Carmelites, Elegy for Young Lovers, Der junge Lord, and since 1965: Le Grand Macabre, Lear, Saint François d'Assise, Gawain… decide for yourself.

That said, it is an astounding, startling, in its way marvelous work, aggressive, powerful, willfully overwhelming, and perversely complex. Yet every seemingly random detail is most exactingly and scrupulously composed and specified… down to the crisscrossing chattering, yelling coffee-house voices and the clatter of the teaspoons. To coordinate that organized chaos, extra conductor (“Maestro suggeritore”) Andreas Abegg, sticking half way out of the pit, supported Metzmacher handing out cues for the singers. For these Salzburg performances, the last scene was modified to exclude parallel video feeds and other electroacoustic elements to heighten the drama and the focus on the music itself. (Zimmermann himself experimented with various alternative versions to end his opera, not the least to make it playable in concert.)

Die Soldaten, which contains all the musical seeds of Zimmermann’s later work, is difficult music—“difficult” with and without quotations marks, and it is supposed to be. In the discomfort that listening to Die Soldaten can induce lies part of the message of the opera… war, rape, and the fall from grace, the story of the decline and fall of Marie. The percussion instruments fire away like artillery; the brass pulsates relentlessly (except for the fuck-along Jazz number in the café later), and the strings shriek. More force, bite, organized cacophony, could hardly be had: Aggressive music for an aggressive, dystopian topic of hopelessness tainted with a soupçon of nihilism.

Still, the evocations and quotations of the work create an atmosphere, a sensuality, and shreds of lyricism that distinguish this opera from New Complexity works like Shadowtime or the stentorian braying of something like Sophie’s Choice. Not only the listeners are challenged, the singers are faced with enormous challenges, too. Every voice driven to its extremes, both in range and power, and the music drives on, in unforgiving ways. At the emotional, possibly musical climax, Marie (Laura Aikin), her sister Charlotte (Mezzo Tanja Ariane Baumgartner), and the Countess de la Roche (Gabriela Beňačová) meet in stratospheric heights for an amazing trio in which each eating their heart out.

If there is a complaint to be had, it’s that the realism, the superficial historicism, and the intense ambiance of Hermanis’ set smooth the corners of the music and take the edge of Die Soldaten. Perhaps it’s even a benefit, since it opens the opera up to enjoyment by those who would otherwise be too disturbed by the music… but is such an opera about enjoyment? In any case, the eye clings to the movie-like scenery, with wicker chairs, whores on horses, and meticulously injured soldiers. (The equestrian cast members being rather more important than a mere chorus member, the one soldier who turned out to be allergic to horses had to be recast as a TB-sufferer, sniffing from a cloth tinctured with antihistamines.) A double of Marie’s attempted a real high wire act (with metaphorical implications) across the Felsenreitschule’s stage that seemed like the real thing, until the actual Marie appeared from a different location. The sex scenes, between grueling and reluctantly appealing, are staged in a proto-phone booth, camouflaged as ‘a roll in ze hay’. The same hay which is later, slowly, unbearably used to depict—and not-depict—Marie’s abortion... and in the background was illustrated with vintage daguerreotype nudie pictures.

The vast lot of the singers—two dozen major and minor roles, lots of supplementary soldiers—performed, with scarcely an exception, superbly. Some highlights among them: Baumgartner (Charlotte), the first to make a great impression and for a while stealing the limelight from Laura Aikin’s very good, clear and bright-voiced Marie. Alfred Muff as their father, Wesener, switched seamlessly between spoken and sung text with his clean and voluminous bass. And the Countess (much like Marie, but ripened) is a great, Kostelnička-like role for a dramatic, coloratura, piercingly and it was very powerfully sung by Beňačová. Not mentioning Renée Morloc (Mother of Stolzius), Tomasz Konieczny (Stolzius), Daniel Brenna (Desportes), Morgan Moody (Captain Mary), Cornelia Kallisch (Mother of Wesener), Matthias Klink (young count), does them injustice, but it would make for awful reading. The main necessary ingredients for this opera—navigation of uncomfortable heights, agility, and power—were present to more than sufficient degrees in all.

Pictures (above and below) courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Ruth Walz

(Recommended) recordings:

available at Amazon
BAZi, Die Soldaten,
Kontarsky / Stuttgart State Orchestra


available at Amazon
BAZi, Die Soldaten,
Kontarsky / Stuttgart State Orchestra
Dir.: H.Kupfer
Arthaus Musik DVD

available at Amazon
BAZi, Die Soldaten,
M.Gielen / Gürzenich Orchestra
(org. recording)