Zimmermann’s Soldaten in Wiesbaden

Die Soldaten by Bernd Alois Zimmermann is a key work in the history of contemporary opera and one of the most significant of the post-World War II period, perhaps the equivalent to Wozzeck of the interwar years. If it is not performed as often as it deserves, that is surely due to the huge demands it makes of an opera company. Along with sixteen singing and ten speaking roles, it requires a very large orchestra with multiple percussion. The complex score involves overlaps of scenes and voices, not to speak of film and external sound effects. For Zimmermann, contemporary opera had to be “total theatre” and in Wiesbaden this concept was given a literal realisation. Most of the audience, including myself, were transferred from the stalls to seating on the stage and all the action of the piece took place in the auditorium, the participants evolving from bourgeois spectators into members of a brutal society, both abusers and abused.

In the skilful production by the Russian Vasily Barkhatov, the militarism of that society was underlined by setting some of the scenes in barracks, a hospital for the wounded, and a morgue. Views of a war-damaged Wiesbaden theatre were projected onto a zeppelin floating anachronistically under the chandeliers. The eclectic but largely serialist score supplied a coherent and powerful commentary on the tragedy and it was impressively performed by the Hessian Orchestra under Zsolt Hamar’s direction.Gloria Rehm was outstanding as Marie, both vocally and dramatically, capturing all the facets of the transformation from carefree teenager to naïve ambitious ingénue, and then from victim of sexual abuse to homeless outcast. She was ably supported by a strong cast of singer-actors. If, at the end, I was not totally overwhelmed by what was clearly a most effective and affecting performance, I suspect that this was because, being perched on an uncomfortable chair with only an incomplete view of proceedings, I could not be as fully engaged as otherwise would have been the case.