Earlier this week a video of Die Soldaten (the soldiers) by Bernd Alois Zimmermann, recorded during a performance at the 2012 Salzburg Festival, was released in both DVD and Blu-ray formats. The opera is based on a play of the same name written in 1776 by Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz. That play was revolutionary for a variety of reasons (none of which were connected with our own associations with the year 1776); and, therefore, both it and the opera are best approached with some context-setting background.
As a student, Lenz attended lectures by Immanuel Kant at Königsberg; and, through Kant, he discovered the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This was his first step away from the elegant systems conceived by Kant’s Enlightenment thinking to the burgeoning romanticism of Rousseau’s inquiries into human nature. He would later meet the young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; and through Goethe he became acquainted with Johann Gottfried Herder, the Counter-Enlightenment philosopher who prioritized the power of human emotion over “pure” reason. Herder was one of the thinkers who provided the philosophical foundations for the Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) movement, championed in dramatic texts by Lenz, as well as Goethe and Friedrich Schiller.
Projecting forward, Lenz’ life and work was a major source of inspiration for Georg Büchner, who had planned a novella entitled Lenz, which exists only as a fragment. Büchner also left behind a collection of unordered scenes for a play entitled Woyzeck, which most likely was inspired by Lenz’ Die Soldaten. That collection of scenes would then become the basis for the first opera composed by Alban Berg.
Like Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” Berg’s Wozzeck was a succès de scandale. Through his studies with Arnold Schoenberg, Berg had cultivated a sophisticated command of “emancipated” dissonance, which made a perfect match for the raw emotional qualities of Büchner’s text. The result was an opening night that both intrigued and provoked in equal measure, ultimately leading to a string of performances throughout Europe before being banned by the Nazi’s as “degenerate art.”
Like Berg’s opera, Zimmermann survived the Nazis. He was drafted into the Wehrmacht in 1940 but released in 1942 due to a severe skin illness. He rode out the war as a music student and free-lance composer, although he did not receive a degree until 1947. With the Nazis gone, he was free to pursue his own interested in “emancipated dissonance;” and, like Berg, he shared an interest in the impact such music could have in a dramatic setting. Die Soldaten is probably his best known work, although it was never completed to his satisfaction (as seems to have been the case with Büchner’s Woyzeck).
Part of the problem was that Die Soldaten was as much a grand experiment in theatrical design as it was an ambitious musical undertaking. Like Stravinsky, Zimmermann was interested in dissonance that arises from the superposition of many disjoint activities, all bombarding the mind simultaneously. In his original vision Die Soldaten was conceived to be performed on a ring of twelve stages surrounding the audience, which would have to keep looking in different directions to follow the narrative. To the best of my knowledge, the opera has never been produced this way; and the superposition of material in the score was so complex that (like many other new compositions), the music was originally declared unplayable.
In many respects Salzburg provided an accommodating venue for such an ambitious project. The main stage is 40 meters wide, and Stage Director Alvis Hermanis used not only every millimeter of the surface but the full extent of height reaching up to the stone heads of horses that overlook the stage. He also required the lead soprano, Laura Aikin, to walk a tightrope across the entire 40-meter width.
This physical scale literally dwarfs the orchestra pit. However, the score calls for 170 musicians, all of whom (along with the 50 solo vocalists) were ably conducted by Ingo Metzmacher. The result is an impressive piece of spectacle that prevails admirably over the confusion that is likely to befall the listener encountering Zimmermann’s complexities for the first time.
Nevertheless, we should ask what has been served by all this spectacle. The booklet accompanying the recording distills the narrative down to a single phrase, describing the opera as following “the story of a betrothed couple through to the desperate situation of the rejected Marie, who is made the plaything of male lust and intrigue and ends up a whore.” All of this takes place within a complex web of motives, almost all of which are grounded in the basest forms of human depravity. The opera is not about war per se; and soldiers figure in the plot simply because they embody men who, out of necessity, must dispense with any of those qualities we tend to associate with “humanity.”
The biggest problem is that all of this is far beyond the capabilities of even the most skilled camera crew. (It probably strains the attention of anyone sitting in the audience as well.) Any broad view of the entire stage cannot be easily resolved, while any close-up compromises all that simultaneity that serves as Zimmermann’s dramatic core. (This definitely is Zimmermann’s conception, by the way, since he wrote his own libretto.) Then, of course, there are problems when a close-up shows too much, like the safety cable Marie is wearing while doing her high-wire act.
For all of these shortcomings, however, it is difficult to walk away from this opera, even in this video form, without feeling highly impressed by the experience. One cannot be unmoved by either the epic qualities of grandeur or the unrelenting dissonance of the music. The advantage of having the video is that one may revisit this opera, because it is only through a series of exposures that sensemaking will begin to work its course. Given the resource requirements, it is unlikely that Die Soldaten will become as much of a repertoire tradition as Wozzeck has become; but, in the personal space of a living room, each of us has the ability to penetrate gradually the confusions surrounding Zimmermann’s vision. Such sensemaking is likely to rub off on any subsequent experiences with past, present, and future repertoire.