Hard Work for All Concerned: Die Soldaten Opens Zurich Opera Season

SwitzerlandSwitzerland -size: 13px; line-height: 19px;”> Zimmermann Die Soldaten: Soloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich, conductor: Marc Albrecht, Zurich Opera, Zurich. 22.9.13 (JR)


Wesener:                      Pavel Daniluk
Marie:                            Susanne Elmark
Charlotte:                    Julia Riley
Wesener’s mother:  Cornelia Kallisch
Stolzius:                       Michael Kraus
Stolzius’ mother:      Hanna Schwarz
Obrist:                           Reinhard Mayr
Desportes:                   Peter Hoare
Pirzel:                           Michael Laurenz
Eisenhardt:                Cheyne Davidson
Haudy:                         Yuriy Tsiple
Mary:                           Oliver Widmer
Countess Roche:     Noëmi Nadelmann
Young Count:          Dmitry Ivanchey

Director:              Calixto Bieito
Sets:                       Rebecca Ringst and Anett Hunger
Lighting:               Franck Evin
Costumes:            Ingo Krügler
Video:                    Sarah Derendinger
Choreography:  Beate Vollack
Drama:                  Beate Breidenbach



“Tosca” was once famously described as a “shabby little shocker”. Well, Zurich chose to open its new season with a brutal shocker, Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s “Die Soldaten”, written in 1965.

Günter Wand and then Wolfgang Sawallisch were invited to conduct the work’s première and both turned it down as unplayable, Wand even describing Zimmermann as “evil”, the work – before revision – needing multiple conductors; Michael Gielen eventually took up the challenge and it was a great success, all performances were sold out. It is a profoundly disturbing work; Zimmermann was a depressive and committed suicide five years after the work’s composition.

The work is now recognised as a 20th century masterpiece and spoken of in the same breath as “Moses and Aron”, “Lulu” and “Wozzeck”.  Zurich Opera has turned to Spanish Director Calixto Bieito, based this season in Basle, to produce the opera and he has set it at the time of its composition, the Sixties. It is the time of the Vietnam War and the Cold War. The soldiers are supposed to be a metaphor for life’s struggle. The entire orchestra, all dressed in combat gear, is not in the pit, which is entirely covered over, but on spectacular yellow metal gantries high above and at the back of the stage. The percussion section is immense. The stage is brought forward into the stalls so that all the major action takes place in the auditorium, almost in the lap in those unfortunate enough to have selected the front row. The chorus of soldiers and officers march menacingly in and out underneath the orchestra and some soloists (such as a Chaplain who frequently incants the text of the Dies Irae) appear on moving lifts within this metal framework, supposed to resemble a prison, or climb up tall metal ladders into the top boxes at the side of the stage.


The opera depicts man’s inhumanity to man, or rather in this opera, women. The main protagonist, Marie, here superbly sung, shrieked and acted by young Danish soprano Susanne Elmark, is an ordinary young woman seeking love and adventure who ends up as a prostitute for the soldiers and noblemen (and in this production noblewomen) of her local town, eventually having a nervous breakdown and dying. At the beginning of the opera, the young innocent face of Marie, as a small child, is portrayed on three video-screens, two within the auditorium. At the beginning of the third Act, after the interval, as life deteriorates, we see a dead rat being attacked by maggots.

There are bright searchlights blinding those in the Stalls; at one stage a percussion section is wheeled to the front of the stage for added effect, hitting everything metal in sight Nibelheim-like with spoons. A jazz combo enters onto the stage and plays from time to time, for example when the soldiers throw a party. The music is often deafening and demanding for orchestra and singers alike. It’s not all screeching and militaristic bombast, there are some lighter sections, but in general the opera is an assault on the senses.

Susanne Elmark was triumphant. Her facial expressions were often depicted on the video screens and she entered right into the part. Singers who particularly stood out were British tenor Peter Hoare as Desportes, Noëmi Nadelmann as the Countess and Hanna Schwarz as Stolzius’ mother (luxury casting).

Conductor Marc Albrecht (and a second conductor at the very front of the stage) worked hard to keep all the goings-on together and received plenty of approbation.

Most sexual perversions and some torture were presented quite graphically on stage, Marie was in a constant state of undress, at the end she poured blood on herself and stood, Jesus-like, as though crucified at the front of the stage. By the interval, a large number of seat-holders in the Stalls had left in disgust or simply numbed by what they had seen and heard. This meant that at the final curtain there was surprisingly no boo-ing – they had all left, leaving aficionados of modern opera with strong eardrums and strong stomachs and a few hardened music critics to applaud politely an opera they will not forget in a hurry.


John Rhodes