Salzburg Festival: Die Soldaten, Excellent

AustriaAustria Zimmermann, Die Soldaten: Soloists, Instrumentalists, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Ingo Metzmacher (conductor). Felsenreitschule, Salzburg, 20.8.2012 (MB)

Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten © Ruth Walz

Wesener – Alfred Muff
Marie – Laura Aikin
Charlotte – Tanja Ariane Baumgartner
Wesener’s Old Mother – Cornelia Kallisch
Stolzius – Tomasz Konieczny
Stolzius’s Mother – Renée Morloc
Countess de la Roche – Gabriela Beňačková
The Young Count – Matthias Klink
Desportes – Daniel Brenna
Pirzel – Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke
Eisenhardt – Boaz Daniel
Mary – Morgan Moody
Haudy – Matjaž Robavs
Obrist – Reinhard Mayr
Three Young Officers – Andreas Früh, Paul Schweinester, Clemens Kerschbaumer
Andalusian Woman, Servant – Beate Vollack
Countess de la Roche’s Servant – Werner Friedl
Petty Officer, Captain – Volker Wahl
Madame Roux – Anna-Eva Köck
Young Petty Officer, Young Hunter – Rupert Grössinger
Drunken Officer – Frederik Götz
Eighteen Officers – Svilen Angelov, David Fliri, Benedikt Flörsch, Simon Förster, Frederik Götz, Rupert Grössinger, Ludwig Hohl, Robert Huschenbett, Nikolaij Janocha, Petter Lindahl, Thomas Mahlknecht, Matuš Mráz, Kiril Stoyanov, Alexander Tröger, Tihomir Tonchev, Justus Wilcken, Wei Wei, Domink Worni

Artist – Katharina Dröscher
Alvis Hermanis (director, set designs)
Eva Dessecker (costumes)
Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting)
Gudrun Hartmann (assistant director)
Uta Gruber-Ballehr (assistant set designs)
Götz Leineweber (dramaturgy)

Jazz Combo: Johannes Bauer (guitar), Tony Ganev (double bass), Rudolf Matajsz (trumpet), Petkov Nedialko (clarinet), Markus Stepanek, Hans-Josef Knaust (organ), Michael Richter (celesta), Jory Vinikour (harpsichord)m Günther Albers (piano), Christoper Brandt (guitar)

If some of the decisions concerning opera at this year’s Salzburg Festival may have raised eyebrows – The Magic Flute eschewing the Vienna Philharmonic for the astringent sounds of Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s Concentus Musicus Wien, programming of both Carmen and La bohème – then this staging of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten offered redemption. A towering masterpiece of twentieth-century opera, its demands have so far ensured that performances have proved infrequent, to put it mildly. A festival such as Salzburg’s is just the place to begin to put that right. This first night would have granted every member of the audience ample justification to return home and to agitate for a staging as soon as possible. A proviso, of course, must be that such a work is performed well, for a poor or even mediocre performance does no one any favours; Salzburg’s production passed the test of excellence with flying colours.

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra was on form as wonderful as that for La bohème a couple of nights previously, a rebuke to those who would question its versatility. It would be folly, of course, to doubt the VPO’s recalcitrance in certain situations; this orchestra, rightly or wrongly, needs a conductor it respects. Then, just as it has performed challenging modernist music with enormous success for conductors such as Claudio Abbado and Pierre Boulez, it will play Zimmermann as if to the manner born. One might have thought Zimmermann as regular a guest at the Vienna State Opera as Mozart. Clearly the Viennese trust Ingo Metzmacher and enjoy playing for him; he certainly had the measure of Zimmermann’s score, much as one could imagine the work’s first conductor, Michael Gielen, having done. Rarely, if ever, though, could such depth as well as precision have been heard from the orchestra, here joined by a number of other fine musicians, placed on either side of the Felsenreitschule’s pit.

It is no exaggeration, moreover, to say that there was not a single weak link in the cast; this was a true company effort, a state of affairs all the more extraordinary given the size of that cast. Laura Aikin’s Marie showed herself as true a successor to Berg’s Marie as Zimmermann’s opera is to Wozzeck. Aikin’s was an astounding performance, marrying precision and intensity to the nth degree, never sentimentalising – though perhaps there is not time to do such a thing – and thereby rendering the plight of the poor girl who becomes the ‘soldiers’ whore’ (Soldatenmensch) all the more chillingly plausible. Gabriela Beňačková was, quite rightly, acclaimed with enormous warmth as the Countess de la Roche. It is not just that hers is such a sympathetic character, seeking to understand Marie and to take her in, but that Beňačková, radiant of voice, treated and expressed the character’s situation with every bit as great humanity as one would expect in Mozart or Janáček. Alfred Muff’s Wesener, Marie’s father, was a conflicted soul, drawing one in and yet counselling against all-too-easy empathy. Tomasz Konieczny’s Stolzius was a tragic, lovelorn, and yet determined, figure, affording a fine contrast with Daniel Brenna’s Desportes, whom he would poison to avenge Marie’s fate. Brenna managed to render credible both the initial charms to which Marie fell victim and increasingly the repellent nature of the character and his class once he and it had had their fill. Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke made a typically memorable high-tenor impression as Pirzel, Boaz Daniel similarly impressing in philosophical debate as the army chaplain. But as characters came and went, interacted with each other, with memories of each other, their scenes unfolding or flashing past sequentially or simultaneously, the cast was so much more than even the sum of its very fine parts.

Alvis Hermanis’s production proved both faithful and unfaithful, productively so. Some may well have regretted the loss of film, but if film may be employed to clarify staging, I see no reason why staging should not be employed to attain similar ends to film. Perhaps there were elements in the production that simplified the almost diabolically – in a good sense – complex action of Zimmermann’s opera, but there was still a great deal with which to be taxing one’s mind, eyes, and ears. The stage constantly reinvented itself, and yet constantly remained the same. Some action took place behind windows through which we observed observers observing. Who were the voyeurs, the soldiers masturbating as they watched Marie, or us watching them? The use to which the Felsenreitschule itself was put was highly inventive, the building coming into its own through lighting (Gleb Filshtinsky) and increasing encroachments of the stage action. Marie’s – or rather Katharina Dröscher’s – tight-rope walking above the stage may not have been the most subtle of metaphors, but it enthralled, highwire ‘spectacle’ in the best sense. Indeed, so taken in was I that I initially thought it was Aikin, and that somehow she would walk the tightrope and sing – a tightrope of its own. Equally inventive use was made of straw, absolving us of the necessity to watch every act, whilst enticing us and yet reminding us of the eighteenth-century setting. Costumes, by the way, were almost impeccably ‘traditional’, and there were real horses as well as a stone Felsenreitschule horse’s head to be provocatively ridden, not that ‘traditionalists’ would be likely to have much interest in a work such as this, preferring the vulgarity of opera as ‘beautiful’ entertainment.

The truest compliment I can pay to this fine production is to say that, emotionally drained though I was by the end, I had no other desire than to see it again, to experience more of what, musically and scenically, I had doubtless missed from a single performance. Quotations, most celebratedly of all, the chorale, ‘Ich bin’s, ich sollte büssen,’ from the St Matthew Passion, inevitably haunted, questioned, brought into shattering perspective the entirety of the German musico-dramatic tradition that arguably had begun with Bach. Yet this was no exercise in nostalgia: it was raw, contemporary music drama (just, of course, as Bach’s works are, or would be, were they performed as something more than a pseudo-archaeological exercise). The ‘excessive demands’ (Metzmacher) placed upon the singers in the third toccata, with which the fourth and final act opens, remained long in the mind’s ear, the most extreme complexity and simultaneity of all, here performed live rather than recorded, as has often been the case, at the composer’s recommendation. Emphasis was lain throughout upon live performance rather than recording or other electronic elements: not the only solution to the score’s difficulties, but on this evidence, a more than plausible, quite convincing, path to follow – assuming the requisite technical excellence. What perhaps lingered longest in the memory, indeed still does, was the final dying away into nothingness, Marie’s destruction at the hands of a brutal, militarised society finally put beyond doubt. For all the complexity of the work, Metzmacher’s words provide a simple, yet all-encompassing conclusion: ‘Marie lies destroyed on the ground. The father [who has failed to recognise in this beggar his own daughter] walks slowly away. One instrument after the other stops playing. The light is extinguished.’

Mark Berry