A half-naked soldier, hung from the wrists, is whipped by his laughing peers. Another soldier, with a knife, casually slices off the tongue of Marie’s sister Charlotte. He drops a red, wet glob beside her, as gouts of blood pour from her open mouth. More blood will follow.
Rape, violence, torture: the brutalisation and brutality of soldiers is timeless, and forms the core of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s 1965 opera Die Soldaten, based on Jakob Lenz’s 1776 drama of that name. Lenz’s play was a moral cry against the unjust treatment of women; Zimmermann’s cry is louder, more elemental, a howl against brutality in general. Both rank among the most important works of art of their respective centuries.
After just a year at the helm of the Zurich Opera, it is a mark of intendant Andreas Homoki’s success that he can present a work as hardcore as this in a production by a stage director as provocative as Calixto Bieito to the Swiss establishment without earning so much as a single boo.
Bieito, master of onstage savagery, made much of his most controversial work for Homoki at Berlin’s Komische Oper, but the Zurich public is a very different beast. Until now, whether the opera in question has been by Mozart, Verdi, Puccini or Wagner, Bieito’s stagings have always featured rape, blood, degradation, alcohol and gratuitous violence. How perfect, then, to hire him for Die Soldaten, in which most of these elements are actually part of the plot.
Designer Rebecca Ringst’s coup is a yellow scaffolding set that places the huge orchestra, in 1960s combat gear, centre stage. Parts of the percussion section are wheeled out on low platforms at critical moments. It works; in Zimmermann’s hands, orchestral instruments are weapons. On the podium, with video screens keeping him linked to performers often behind his back or beneath his feet, Marc Albrecht draws fanatically committed playing from the Philharmonia Zürich, approaching the score with a combination of cool control and raw force.
Bieito requires a lot from his cast. They must sing almost unsingable parts while committing unspeakable acts, sometimes naked. This almost all of them achieve with aplomb. It is a monstrous score, and the Zurich singers, too many and too consistently good to name individually, give it a magnificent account.
Although Bieito interpolates video footage of a young girl committing disturbing acts, of fighting cocks and a dead rat crawling with maggots, and although the onstage torture and vivisection are unscripted, he is still, by his usual standards, comparatively restrained; often the score is so explicit that anything more would be tautology. It is physical, it is dirty, and it runs like clockwork.
Even so, Bieito fails to make us sufficiently interested in Marie to care about her fate, and the whole egregious thing is strangely unmoving. A reception of polite applause from a well-heeled public might just give him pause for thought.