The War is Always On
Zimmermann's 'Die Soldaten' in Milan,
enthralls GIUSEPPE PENNISI
enthralls GIUSEPPE PENNISI
When Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten was presented at the Salzburg Festival, the title of my review was (suitably) World without God [See 30 August 2012]. The production was a joint venture with La Scala, where a series of performances opened on 17 January 2015. I hope that other opera houses will show this very enthralling and engrossing production. M&V readers are referred to the 30 August 2012 review where the opera is discussed extensively; also the main production team and the principal singers at La Scala are the same as those who staged and performed the opera two and a half years ago in Salzburg.
However, in Salzburg, the opera is performed in the Felsenreitschule, the huge hall formerly for riding horses, and home to horse shows during wintertime. It has an oversized wide front stage and a perfect acoustic which almost envelops the audience. The Wiener Philharmoniker (suitably expanded) was divided by the conductor, Ingo Metzmacher, into three sections: the pit for the regular orchestra, and the left and right sides of the audience, mostly for the percussion, the tubular bells, the harpsichords, the celesta and the organ. The stage sets by Alvis Hermanis and the costumes by Eva Dessecker place the action during World War I. The front stage is so wide that several scenes can be shown simultaneously in Lille and in Armentières (near the Flemish battlefield). A wall with a series of arches separated the front stage from the rest of the set, where the military life can be seen: men riding horses, their prostitutes in Amazon attire. From time to time projections on screens (pulled down between the arches) show postcards of brothel life at the beginning of the twentieth century. This orchestral and dramaturgical set up is as close as possible to the instructions provided by Zimmermann. To grasp this, it is sufficient to read the composer's indications and compare Salzburg's production with a Stuttgart production on a fairly popular DVD.
As I pointed out in 2012, the set could not fit a normal opera house stage, not even in a large theatre like La Scala. Thus, the production was drastically changed. The stage was divided into two levels: most of the action takes place in the lower level, and in the upper level, one could see the soldiers in their barracks, in beer halls, in brothels. It worked quite well. The more intimate setting underlined a new dimension: for those who are damned to be soldiers 'from here to eternity', following Kipling's poem and the title of a well known novel and movie of the Fifties, the war is always on. During an armistice (such is the period when Die Soldaten takes place), the fight consists of humiliating women. The plot revolves around the destitution of a simple middle class girl, who becomes a prostitute and later a beggar.
At La Scala the orchestra is not divided into three parts. Closer to Zimmermann's intentions, the main orchestra is in the pit but there are various instrumental groups in the side boxes and also in the upper tier. This allows Ingo Metzmacher and La Scala's orchestra to envelop the audience with very interesting stereophonic sounds.
On the opening night there were over ten minutes of accolades for the cast, the orchestra and the chorus and a real ovation for protagonist Laura Aikin. The other twelve protagonists, out of a twenty five singer cast playing nearly forty different parts, were also very good.
It must be noted that 17 January 2015 was a Saturday night, so there was no excuse for the empty seats in the orchestra rows. Also, at the 15 January 2015 dress rehearsal open to students, only a limited number showed up. These could be indications that Milan's appreciation of modern music has a long way to go.