Berndt Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten was something of a sleeper hit at the 2012 Salzburg festival and is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s a peculiar work. It’s very episodic and requires massive forces. There are 16 singing and 10 non-singing roles, a 100 piece orchestra, a jazz band and more. At Salzburg the scale was magnified by staging it in the Felsenreitschule, using the full 40m width and enormous height of the stage. I’ve included some full stage shots in the screen caps to give an idea of how huge this all is. They can be expanded to full size Blu-ray caps (roughly three times the size of the image in the review).
The work is based on an 18th century play about aristocratic French officers and a bourgeois girl, Marie. The basic plot concerns a draper, Stolzius, who is engaged to Marie, an officer, Desportes, who is making a play for Marie, and various other officers who she is passed on to in her descent from respectable bourgeoise to “soldiers’ whore”. It ends badly! It’s also very confusing as there are many, almost identically dressed, officers and it’s not at all clear who is doing what. It must have been even more confusing in the theatre than in the relative close ups of a recording.
In Alvis Hermanis’ production the period has been updated to vaguely 20th century and the officers’ quarters have become a rather squalid barrack room that might have come out of Wozzeck. It’s an interesting staging. At centre are a bunk bed, which is used for many of the more intimate scenes, and a sort of glass telephone box, which is used mainly for various forms of fornication, generally accompanied by a leering audience of soldiers. Lots of things go on in, among and above the arches of the Felsenreitschule. These include Marie, or a lookalike, crossing the stage on a high wire, scantily clad girls riding horses and projections of classic erotica.
Musically it’s built in “episodes” each based on a particular musical form; a chaconne, a strophe etc. It’s very dissonant, uses twelve tone technique and has a lot of percussion, much of it informal such as banging chairs on the stage. It’s not a score one takes in easily at first hearing.
There are some very good performances notably from Laura Aikin as Marie, Tomasz Konieczny as a mother fixated Stolzius and Daniel Brenna as a rather brutal Desportes. Mainly though it’s an ensemble effort and there are some very good, not to say creepy, performances from various groups. Ingo Metzmacher conducts a much augmented Wiener Philharmoniker and I really couldn’t pass judgement!
As a video recording this is very interesting. Hannes Rossacher does very well with the near impossible task of filming this monster. He provides enough shots of the whole stage to establish scale and activity while closing up the shot most of the time. At times he uses superposition to get a flavour of both at once and it works quite well. Fortunately the picture is superb because it needs to be. I watched on Blu-ray and I can’t imagine how it would look on DVD except to say it probably would suffer a lot. The sound (DTS-HD) is also very vivid and noticeably better than the LPCM option. There are English, German and French subtitles. The only bonus material are trailers for other recent Salzburg recordings and the booklet contains a track listing and a short essay. Some more background material would really have helped.