Die Soldaten

DIE SOLDATEN. Bernd Alois Zimmerman.
Jahrhunderthalle. Bochum. Germany.

Review by Polly Hope

Phew, what a production! Where to start with such a vast and complex stage work? Mind blowing, totally consuming, such resources, such an input of energy with nary a minute detail forgotten. This surely is what contemporary opera should be? All encompassing. The complete art form.

DIE SOLDATEN had its premiere in Cologne in 1965; the work is so fresh and so new it could have been written yesterday. Zimmerman conceived this mammoth work from a play by Jacob Menze written in 1775: the story of a girl’s life from nice upper class girl to common prostitute. But that’s only the spine of the story. As Zimmerman himself said: “I have employed speech, singing, screaming, whispering, jazz. Gregorian chant, dance, film and the entire modern technical theatre.” In this production of David Pountney all these ingredients are there, barring film.

The performance takes place in the Jahrhunderhalle, an enormous space. No, the venue is as big as a lying down skyscraper. A retired railway shed built in 1908, in the middle of a park. This extraordinary edifice has been elegantly restored for performances, with foyers and bars and cloakrooms in industrial style, girders and polished concrete, glass and fine minimalist detail.

The railway tracks still run inside the building from end to end. The stage is around 300 metres long and the audience is seated on flat railways trucks on either side of the narrow stage, with a further cliff of audience on a metal bridge crossing the stage. The action of the opera cuts back and forth in time and place, and Lo and Behold the stage and audience move on the rail tracks. Albeit very slowly back and forth the entire length of the rail shed. We slide past a scene and another glides in. Performers walk huge distances of the entire stage length. One moment one is eyeballing an old woman on a chaise longue and the next minute a pool of naked drunken soldiers slide past.

The production is set more or less between the Franco Prussian War and World War One. The mystery is enthralling as time and space intertwine, tangle and untangle, as does Zimmerman’s incredible opus. Smoke swirls, lights flash, [the lighting is brilliant, despite being only from rigs directly over head.] We are subjected to scenes of incest and rape and buggery, yet as the horror mounts such stuff is necessary and doesn’t shock. It isn’t performed for shock but about the ghastliness of what can happen in our tricky world. All of course ends in tragedy and down beat, but we leave the theatre gasping and very aware how good it is to still be alive.

The singers are all perfect in their roles, too many to mention by name, and goodness aren’t their parts difficult, learning such music takes highly skilled performers and these are of the best.

Then the orchestra: Zimmerman called for twelve orchestras dotted around the performance space. Here we only have two. One orchestra behind a section of the audience, and the second orchestra the other side of the hall’s audience for all the percussion. Something like a hundred players and the assorted instruments are astonishing. Everything from maracas to bongos, vibraphones to violins. Gongs and cellos, glockenspiel, french horns, castanets and flutes. And lots more, as well as all the other normal instruments you can think of and plenty of exotic others. The sound is deafening and ricochets off the iron roof girders, yet sometimes is so soft and heartbreaking. Not atonal. Not tonal, unique and right for this hideous and cruel story. Little wonder Zimmerman committed suicide; this was his last work, where on earth could he go from here?

It was the first time I have seen this piece staged. It should be given many more performances worldwide. Incredible that a smallish mining town in the middle of Germany has both the money and the guts to put on this wondrous work. Hats off to them. Hats off to all concerned in the production, orchestra, performers, costumes, lighting, casting director and wig makers, choreographer, and stars galore for the director, David Pountney, for having the vision of how to mount this impossible piece.

I guess Verdi is going to seem pretty tame from now on…