Notes from the 2012 Salzburg Festival – 12

AustriaAustria B.A. Zimmermann, Die Soldaten: Soloists, Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Salzburg Festival Children’s Chorus, Ingo Metzmacher (conductor), Felsenreitschule, Salzburg, 24.8.2012 (JFL)

Co-production with La Scala, Milan.

Direction & Choreography: Aletta Collins
Sets: Miriam Buether
Costumes: Gabrielle Dalton
Lighting: Andreas Fuchs
Dramaturgy: Peter Blaha
Chorus: Ernst Raffelsberger
Kid’s Chorus: Wolfgang Götz


Wesener: Alfred Muff
Marie: Laura Aikin
Charlotte: Tanja Ariane Baumgartner
Wesener’s old mother: Cornelia Kallisch
Stolzius: Tomasz Konieczny
Stolzius’ Mother: Renée Morloc
Colonel, Count von Spannheim: Reinhard Mayr
Desportes: Daniel Brenna
Pirzel: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Eisenhardt: Boaz Daniel
Captain Haudy: Matjaž Robavs
Captain Mary: Morgan Moody
Dutchess de la Roche: Gabriela Beňačková
The young Count de la Roche: Matthias Klink
Andalusian Woman: Beate Vollack
Servant of the Countess: Werner Friedl
Three young Officers: Andreas Früh, Paul Schweinester, Clemens Kerschbaumer
Three Cadets: Robert Christott, Stephan Schäfer, Volker Wahl
Oversexed Cadet: Rupert Grössinger
Madam Roux: Anna-Eva Köck
Drunken Officer: Frederik Götz

Bernd Alois Zimmermann • Die Soldaten

Picture courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Ruth Walz

For discriminating and adventurous ears, Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten in Alvis Hermanis’ production was the undisputed highlight of the 2012 Festival. The five performances were heavily advertised in every program book of the “Salzburg contemporary” series and the Felsenreitschule was well filled for the third performance, but with room enough for me to spread out to the left and right of my seat. In the deep pit of the Felsenreitschule sat the Vienna Philharmonic, with batteries of percussion and harp and organs to the left and right. Despite the VPO’s reputation for being unenthusiastic about contemporary music, they helped create a thrilling, chilling evening, guided by the thoroughly stimulated, multi-tasking Ingo Metzmacher.

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.

it is, in any case, an astounding, startling, in its way marvelous work, aggressive, powerful, willfully overwhelming, and perversely complex. Every seemingly random detail is exactingly and scrupulously composed and specified… down to the crisscrossing, yelling coffee-house voices and the clatter of the teaspoons. To coordinate that organized chaos, extra conductor (“Maestro suggeritore”) Andreas Abegg supported Metzmacher handing out cues for the singers from his stand at the far left of the pit.

Die Soldatencontains all the musical seeds of Zimmermann’s later work. It is difficult music and it is supposed to be. In the discomfort that listening to Die Soldaten induces 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 shag-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.

For all its brutal modernism, the opera creates an atmosphere, a sensuality, and shreds of lyricism that distinguish it 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.

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

available at Amazon
BAZi, Die Soldaten,
M.Gielen / Gürzenich Cologne Orchestra
1965 version

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 that taketh way from the intended brutality and anti-militarism, perhaps that’s a benefit, since it opens the opera up to enjoyment by those who would otherwise be too disturbed by the music. In any case, the eye clings to the movie-like scenery, with wicker chairs, whores on horses, and meticulously injured soldiers. Marie attempted a real high wire act (with metaphorical implications) across the Felsenreitschule’s stage far below, and until the actual Marie appeared from a different location, it had the gasping audience fooled. 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.

Jens F. Laurson