It was the most complex and eagerly awaited opera production at this year's Salzburg Festival - Bernd Alois Zimmermann's 'Die Soldaten" (The Soldiers).
A young woman sinks, deeper and deeper, inexorably - until she lands in the gutter, seeking her own death. Her own father doesn't even recognize her anymore. How could this happen? Bernd Alois Zimmermann's answer is likewise that of director Alvis Hermanis: it can happen to anyone. Anytime, anywhere.
Zimmermann's story - based on a text by Sturm und Drang poet Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz, a contemporary of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - goes like this: Marie, living a sheltered life as the daughter of tradesman Wesener, succumbs to the advances of Desportes, a young officer. To him, she's merely a welcome change of pace. To her, he's a source of love and a way up the social ladder. Once Desportes tires of her, he hands her over to one of his chaps to be raped: the cruel climax in a quagmire of humiliation, defamation and deprivation.
The sphericity of time
Director Hermanis utilizes the broad space of the Felsenreitschule stage to depict various plot strands in parallel fashion: here a glass cube containing a Marie on show in the rough and tumble tavern, there the parlor of her former boyfriend Stolzius and his loudly accusatory mother. Footsoldiers walk their horses in the background arcade, looking more decorative than macho.
Zimmermann's concepts of the circular nature of time and the simultaneity of various layers of plot and time are revealed with compelling dramaturgic force in the Salzburg production. Music and scenery depict up to seven different plot strands at the same time; past and future meet the present onstage. Getting to the heart of that musically is an extremely challenging feat, one conductor Ingo Metzmacher and his ensemble achieve masterfully.
The horrors of war
"The story of 'The Soliders' leaves little room for hope," Metzmacher said. "That's very German." When Bernd Alois Zimmermann completed the work in 1960, he was still feeling the impact of the Second World War. Violence and devastation, extreme situations resulting in human degradation: "The Soldiers" conveys all of that with magnetizing intensity.
Hermanis does not draw out Zimmermann's direct references to war and his clear objection to all forms of militarism, neither does he make references to the current civil war in Syria or other contemporary conflicts. Instead, he chooses to set the story - which author Lenz wrote more than two hundred years ago - in the period of World War I. But in the timeless way he stages it, it could take place at any point in time.
Dedicated to Pussy Riot
Zimmermann's expressive music covers a range that borders on the painful; the musicians and particularly the singers must master extreme pitches and intervallic jumps. The sound is penetrating and tormented. Here, Metzmacher - together with the Vienna Philharmonic - is in top form. The more than 100 musicians of the world-renowned orchestra are divided up across four different sections of the Felsenreitschule stage, buffeting the audience with a forceful sound.
Among the 22-member vocal ensemble, particular mention should be made of Laura Aikin as Marie and Gabriela Beňačková as Countess de la Roche. The deafening applause from the audience at the Salzburg premiere was primarily for their performances, as well as for conductor Ingo Metzmacher, who once again proved his mastery of complex modern scores.
Due to the immense challenges in staging the production, the epochal work's world premiere in Cologne did not occur until February 15, 1965 - five years after the work was completed. Zimmermann's great dramatic gesture is as fresh and contemporary today as it was over 50 years ago. Thus, it does not seem at all out of place that director Alvis Hermanis, who hails from Latvia, dedicated the performance to the musicians of the Russian women's band Pussy Riot, who were recently convicted. These women, too, are the victims of a male-dominated system of power - defenseless, desperate, delicate.