The German thinker Theodor Adorno once wrote that a musical setting of Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck, considered in its own literary right a masterpiece, may well have proved redundant. The reason Berg’s opera Wozzeck succeeded, he argued, was not simply because Berg was Berg, but also because he had acquired the necessary historical distance to begin adapting the text to his own musical ends. Almost a century separates the play and the opera, and as Adorno puts it, ‘what Berg composed is simply what matured in Büchner in the intervening decades of obscurity’. At the same time, he adds, ‘the music capturing that aspect has a subtly polemical quality.’
The same writ much larger could also be said of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s opera Die Soldaten, composed between 1958 and 1964 and regarded as a turning point in his output. His source text of the same name had been written by Jakob Lenz almost two centuries previously and though Zimmermann remains largely faithful to it, there is little mistaking that the military life Lenz observed at close quarters and set down in literary form was reshaped to reflect Zimmermann’s own demoralizing experiences of military service during World War II. At the same time, the opera is not tied with any real specificity to events Zimmermann witnessed, for its pessimism runs much deeper, taking on the polemical dimension Adorno identifies in Wozzeck. Zimmermann believed dehumanization and brutality to be largely independent of historical and cultural circumstances, and that, just as they have been present throughout our past, so are they destined to recur ceaselessly throughout our future. (Noting in the score that the opera is set in Flanders, Zimmermann adds that the time is ‘yesterday, today and tomorrow’.) The one prospect of an end to the violence is an irreversible escalation, visually captured in the image of a mushroom cloud which Zimmermann asks for footage of at the end of the opera (a video not shown in this production), and indicating that the only exit from this self-inflicted vale of tears is total self-obliteration.
Maybe Zimmermann’s pessimism is too much. But there seems to me no dodging the universality in which he couches his claims, and if a stage director must bind the action to a historical epoch, as Alvis Hermanis did by using World War I as the backdrop for this production, then its message needs to project above the period detail. Some use of symbolic gesture stood out, as at the very end, but other elements were either all too readily understood (the Marie double traversing the tightrope, provocative horse-riding to signify loosened morals) or underdeveloped. It is no use, as Zimmermann acknowledged, expecting degradation on an opera stage ever to resemble lived horrors, and he emphasizes the importance of metaphor in his stage directions for Marie’s rape. But Hermanis’ recourse to rolling the characters around in hay for this and anything remotely erotic, which may have been welcomed as a tasteful solution by Salzburg’s more easily scandalized patrons, soon began to look too well-behaved; whether symbolically or otherwise nobody on stage suffered losing their dignity.
I wrote at some length about Die Soldaten and the rest can be read here. My hopes weren’t high for the production, having seen Hermanis direct Das weite Land as a hopelessly crappy remake of Vertigo (normally a fortress of Regie, the Burgtheater likes to throw a bone to the conservatives from time to time), but it was competent, lively, and doubtless preferable to the kind of deadening staging Peter Stein, originally rumoured to direct, now churns out in his dotage. But still, World War I. Shown to be about as disturbing as a day trip to the Cotswolds.
Image credit: Ruth Walz