Die Soldaten, Jahrhunderthalle, Bochum, Germany

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Marie’s fall from grace has never been more palpable. David Pountney’s new production of Die Soldaten is one vast sensual excess. As the merchant’s daughter slides from flirtation to prostitution, the audience slides with her. Literally. The podium on which the seats are mounted rests on railway tracks that run the length of the cavernous Jahrhunderthalle. The effect is unnervingly dizzying.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s first version of Die Soldaten was so ambitious that the piece was deemed unperformable. His revised version, first performed in Cologne in 1965, is still sufficiently complex and demanding to ensure that stagings remain rare and special events. A vast orchestra, an armoury of percussion, a cast of 30, electronic effects and a sprawling, 12-tone score make the piece a knotty challenge for any house. Even so, the piece has earned a reputation as a modern classic, up there with Wozzeck and Moses und Aron.

In his final year at the helm of the well-funded Ruhr Triennale, Jürgen Flimm has thrown everything into this project. The result is the first opera production in the festival’s history truly to use the unique industrial performance space, a voyage of epic proportions and a triumph.

Together, Pountney, his design team and conductor Steven Sloane tell the story with such assurance that it feels like standard repertoire. This is a knuckle-whitening ride through a thrilling tale, so physically engaging that the two and a half hours pass in an instant. The superbly drilled cast sings, struts, strips and rapes its way up and down a catwalk extending from one end of the hall to the other (sets: Robert Innes Hopkins), and the audience is rolled up and down to stomach- churning effect. A complex tale (based on Jakob Lenz’s visionary 1775 play) is so clearly narrated that there is never an instant’s confusion as to what is really happening. Moral and social implications are crystal clear. Such simplicity is more than justified by the excellence of execution and the titanic impact of the music. This is modernity as mass entertainment, atonality for all. And it is part of what the Ruhr Triennale should be all about, a site-specific performance experience that no conventional house could emulate.

Nobody should miss it. Plenty will, since there are only five performances. Catch one if you can. ★★★★★

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