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Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s opera Die Soldaten (The Soldiers) was praised as the highlight of the Salzburg Festival 2012. In Salzburg’s Felsenreitschule, the Wiener Philharmoniker performed the opera under Ingo Metzmacher together with a top-flight cast of singers. A massive ensemble of 170 musicians and 50 soloists on stage contribute to make this highly complex composition a direct and physically palpable experience for the audience. The sheer force of the music and its performance are reflected in the Latvian-born director Alvis Hermanis’s staging: setting the scene on a 40-metre-wide stage and taking advantage of the room’s full height, he
portrays the individual episodes and stages of the plot in the simultaneity required by Zimmermann and condenses it into an exciting drama. Recorded at Salzburg Festival August 2012.
PICTURE FORMAT: NTSC 16:9
SOUND FORMATS: PCM-STEREO DTS 5.1
SUBTITLES: English, German, French
REGION: 0 (worldwide)
BOOKLET: English, German, French
DISC FORMAT: NTSC 16:9
NO OF DISCS: 1
RUN TIME: 122 minutes
ZIMMERMANN Die Soldaten • Ingo Metzmacher, cond; Alfred Muff (Wesener); Laura Aikin (Marie); Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Charlotte); Tomasz Konieczny (Stolzius); Renée Morloc (Mother); Gabriela Be?a?ková (Countess de la Roche); Matthias Klink (The Young Count); Vienna PO • UNITEL 2072588 (DVD: 122:00) Live: Salzburg 8/2012
When I reviewed the Wergo CD reissue of the world premiere cast of this opera (conducted by Michael Gielen) in 2008 for Fanfare, I gave it a positive review and in fact also chose it for my Want List that year. Yet I also said that “Strictly as a listening experience, Zimmermann’s occasional heavy-handedness and love of percussion, especially in the first two acts, annoyed me a bit. Stripped of the total theatrical experience, the multilayered vocal lines can sound confused. And yet it is brilliant, a work of genius, the vocal lines actually ‘singing’ more lyrically than in Berg, even with orchestral interludes like the one in act 2 that almost makes Penderecki sound like Copland.” Thus I was both surprised and excited to see a video production of the opera available for review. Experiencing the opera visually adds an extra dimension unavailable through the listening experience.
To begin with, it seems to me that a very large portion of 20th-century German operas deal with different aspects of human perversion, starting with Strauss’s Salome in 1904. Even though Strauss switched to a more melodic and less starkly dramatic style after Elektra, some of those operas (particularly Die Rosenkavalier) also deal with less-than-savory characters, as does Korngold’s rather treacly Die tote Stadt. Of Berg and Weill I need not make further comment, nor either of the works of Reimann or Henze after World War II. I bring this up partly to illustrate that when a brilliant young composer like Bernd Alois Zimmermann turned to writing an opera, it probably seemed natural for him to use a story as grim and fatalistic as Wozzeck or Lulu.
And indeed it is—the story of a woman’s long, slow, and tortuous descent from respectability to becoming the “whore of the regiment” but also, perhaps more, an illustration of how being a battle-hardened soldier is itself a dehumanizing process, leading one to think and act in ways that these men never would had they remained in polite society. As in the 1965 production, there are huge, graphic illustrations in the background to the action that look to be turn-of-the-20th-century erotica/pornography. In an early scene, nearly the entire regiment (it seems) stands in the background, hands down their pants, as they leer at Marie in her bedroom. Marie’s “fatal attraction” to this world slowly but surely makes her a whore; yet, as the chaplain says pointedly, no woman is born a whore. Thus Marie’s descent is all the more painful to witness. Her fiancé, Stolzius, joins the army to try to keep an eye on her, but is powerless to stop Desportes and his comrades from dragging Marie lower and lower—until the end, when he poisons him.
Director Alvis Hermanis does a simply outstanding job of staging this massive, difficult, and disturbing work. Using the full width, depth, and height of the stage area, Hermanis creates a virtual world of his own in which the denizens of Die Soldaten walk and interact and sing. The almost Cinemascope-type backdrop is a series of huge arches, in each of which is a wall of glass panes. Behind this we see women riding on horses, soldiers coming and going, and later on the masturbation scene. At the end of the Second Act, Marie’s character (portrayed by the excellent young Swiss wirewalker Katharina Dröscher) walks an actual tightrope across the width of the entire stage, some 40 meters in length, to represent her being stuck between two worlds and about to fall. It’s a powerful metaphor and, for someone who has a fear of heights, an almost unwatchable scene.
What makes Die Soldaten so good, and so powerful, is the music. Zimmermann virtually wrote a huge two-hour symphony for voices and orchestra (sections in the score are actually marked Ciacona, Ricerari, Toccata, Notturno, Rondino, etc.), then wove it into a total theatrical experience including multi-media sets, lighting effects, and scenes in which two different events take place in two different times simultaneously. All of this is brought out powerfully by Hermanis’s production and, all things being equal, the cast does a magnificent job with this extremely difficult music. I should, however, like to point out that with the sole exception of Marie’s “aria” in Wozzeck, the vocal lines in the Zimmermann opera are actually less wide-reaching in their vocal leaps, and thus slightly easier to sing. Both female leads sound rather fluttery and unsteady when they start out, but Aikin in particular warms up nicely (in the final scene, she is singing high Ds and D?s almost continuously). I was also rather surprised to see one of my favorite singers from 30 years ago, Gabriela Bena?ková, turn up here as the old Countess. For a 65-year-old soprano, she sounds pretty darn good, pumping out high notes with impunity, her patented pure tone, and perfect pitch.
One continues to wonder, as one is literally dragged by composer and director through this story of a woman’s dissolution, why she could not pull out of it. She has someone who loves her for herself, Stolzius, and in fact he goes so far as to join the regiment just so he can keep an eye on her, but at no point does he seem able to pull her back from the life she is being dragged into. What exactly is the allure of such a life for her? The feeling of being wanted that Desportes shows her (though his intentions are to use her from the start), which she falsely believes to be true love? Living dangerously always seems to attract these naive women.
One touch in this production that does not seem to be stated in the libretto: when the Countess visits Marie and asks her to come and live with her to restore her respectability, Aikin’s character has a full belly, representing a pregnancy. As the ensuing trio unfolds, Aikin pulls large quantities of straw out from under her dress, representing an abortion or a miscarriage, and then walks bent forward, almost doubled over, with her hands on her stomach. It’s a strong, painful dramatic moment to watch.
I found this to be a fascinating if disturbing work, not one to watch often but still a work, and a production, that pushes the limits of what musical theater can do. Recommended.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley Read less
Works on This Recording
Die Soldaten by Bernd Alois Zimmermann
Laura Aikin (Soprano),
Alfred Muff (Bass),
Boaz Daniel (Bass),
Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Mezzo Soprano),
Tomasz Konieczny (Bass),
Renée Morloc (Alto),
Gabriela Benacková (Soprano),
Matthias Klink (Tenor)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Love from a first sight April 22, 2014
By Marina Y. (Richmond Hill, NY) See All My Reviews
"I found director's work brilliant. He help me to stay focused on the music and singing and appreciate this opera ( a difficult one to love)"