Aikin, Beňačková, Morloc, T. A. Baumgartner; Muff, Brenna, Konieczny, M. Klink, Ablinger-Sperrhacke, B. Daniel; Vienna Philharmonic, Metzmacher. Production: Hermanis. EuroArts 2072588, 122 mins., subtitled
Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918–70) is best known today for his opera Die Soldaten (The Soldiers), first staged in 1965. Due to the opera's length, the massive number of performers required (both onstage and in the orchestra) and the very considerable musical difficulties the work presents, subsequent performances and staged productions have been few. This situation is beginning to improve, however: some very fine recorded performances have been in circulation for a number of years. Slowly but steadily, Die Soldaten is beginning to be recognized as one of the twentieth century's most significant operas. It is a crowning achievement of high modernism. This recent EuroArts DVD release presents a live performance of Die Soldaten from the 2012 Salzburg Festival. Many who were fortunate enough to attend those performances regard this production of Die Soldaten as the true highlight of the 2012 Festival.
Based on the eighteenth-century play of the same name by Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz, Die Soldaten tells the tragic tale of a young woman deceived into a false romance that leaves her an army-barracks whore and ultimately completely destitute. As with Karl Georg Büchner's closely-related play Woyzeck of half a century later, Lenz's play is a cry of protest against warfare and its noxious impact on social behavior as depicted in a bunch of downtrodden, depraved soldiers. It is a grim story, well told by both author and composer.
Zimmermann's music, while solidly founded on the principles of serialism, encompasses elements and quotes of other musical styles, from the Dies Irae of Gregorian chant through early-'60s pop-jazz/cocktail-bar music of the type so railed against by Adorno and other aestheticists. Along the way, we encounter reminiscences of the brass ensembles of the time of Heinrich Schütz, Bach-like chorales and much more. At times the sheer quantity of textures can be overwhelming, but the composer's intentions always remain firm and clear.
The performances in this opera are sensational, especially that of Laura Aikin, who appears as Marie. Aikin fully captures the nuances of Marie's gradual but relentless descent from a secure, bourgeois life and engagement to a level of complete degradation. In contemporary music, Aikin's rivals are few, and her equals are quite rare. Among her stellar peers in this cast, greatest praise belongs to Tomasz Konieczny, as Stolzius, Marie's fiancée; to Daniel Brenna, as Desportes, the despicable cad who sets Marie's tragedy in motion; to Alfred Muff, as Marie's straitlaced, judgmental father; and to Gabriela Beňačková, as the Countess de la Roche, who tries to intercede in Marie's plight. Under the sure and passionate direction of Ingo Metzmacher, the Vienna Philharmonic demonstrates yet again why it is one of the world's greatest orchestras.
Die Soldaten presents a plethora of directorial challenges. While certain aspects and scenes necessarily are harsh, even brutal, there are also moments of sensitivity, rife with potential to reveal deeper insights into the human condition. Alvis Hermanis proves more than up to the challenge, both as a director and as a stage designer. He manages to convey the barbaric and cruel aspects of the drama most effectively, yet he never lapses into heavy-handedness. Similarly, he brings great radiance of heart and surpassing artistry to the opera's more introspective facets.
On all fronts, this production of Die Soldaten is worthy of the highest praise. This is a difficult work on all levels, but a very crucial one; this release preserves a marvelous rendition of it.
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