Turbulent winds ahead: the protagonist's demise reads like a bad forecast, and in the ensuing tempest, we are lost in the aural spray. Gratefully, Alvis Hermanis' production of Die Soldaten has enjoyed a smooth passage over The Alps, last sighted at the 2012 Salzburg Festival – it retains its chill factor, for the most part thrillingly grotesque. It is certainly a triumph, yet the production poses a niggling question (and in doing so falls short of full marks). Has a rare opportunity been missed, we wonder, to experience Zimmermann's odyssey in all of its splendour?

Laura Aikin (Marie) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Laura Aikin (Marie)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

The original play is by 18th century writer Jakob Lenz, exponent of the proto-Romantic "Sturm und Drang" school, pupil of Kant turned wanderer, an "odd and indescribable individual" according to Goethe, eventually found dead in the streets of Moscow. Zimmermann regarded the story as "unexceptional", but was captivated by the metaphysics behind the drama, which saw the action whizz from Lille to Armentières, back and forth in time.

Marie drops her lover Stolzius for Captain Desportes, who soon spurns the peasant girl in turn, though help is at hand from Gräfin de la Roche, sung here by Gabriela Beňačková with caterwauling upper notes and all the high-mindedness of a Lady Billows. Marie refuses the Gräfin's charity, and sinks ever lower into depravity. Stolzius loses his mind and poisons himself, though not before he has delivered the same fate to Desportes. When Marie begs at the heels of her father, he no longer recognises her through her transformation.

Tonight's setting was a stable in World War I so sordid that you could almost feel the rats gnawing. Pornographic images flash up to cast incestuous aspersions on the main characters, so that a Victorian woman spanks a man in the nude, forming the backdrop to a despairing Stolzius curling on his mother's lap. Violent hordes of soldiers masturbate, spying on Marie, or collectively violate Madame Roux in full sight of Father Eisenhardt, piously portrayed by Boaz Daniel, who stares captivated. At least Marie takes cover when she gives herself to Desportes in the silage, later removing hay from her skirt as a symbol for self-abortion. She takes Wesener to the haystack too, prostituting herself out to her father. Alvis Hermanis was right to warn in a newspaper interview that we would leave the theatre feeling shocked. It's gritty stuff.

Anna-Eva Köck (Madame Roux) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Anna-Eva Köck (Madame Roux)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

This is Lenz's social critique on steroids, yet it risks overlooking Zimmermann's design. "Put allspace in a notshall", Zimmermann quotes Joyce – the composer originally conceived of twelve separate stages, where all the permutations of a drama could play out in one place, jumping from one to the other, or presented concurrently. Tacit acknowledgement is given to Zimmermann's time-space pendulum, with three horse head busts nodding left right and centre for past, future and present. But scenes merged into one on a stage without delineation, so that we didn't feel the nauseating swing from scene to scene as clearly as we might. Zimmermann's original requirements were unworkable for the 1965 Cologne première, but recent productions have found inventive ways to partition the stage, surely essential to his vision.

That said, the score does much of the legwork for vertiginous time travel. Musical strata are peeled to reveal diverse layers (officially, Klangkomposition). The jazz quartet stole through the 12-tone tapestry to jam tightly with the orchestra. A Bach chorale sealed Marie's fate, spine-tingling as it rolled from the pit in brassy waves. Of the 120 musicians featured tonight, many played from the pit, though others from the wings and separate rehearsal rooms, projected through speakers lining the auditorium's circumference. A fiendishly difficult work, requiring no fewer than 60 stage rehearsals for its première, conductor Ingo Metzmacher did a remarkable job of welding a coherent whole, tickling shape and texture from a teeming score, but never at the expense of tautness.

© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

We enjoyed a high-voltage performance from leading lady Laura Aikin, who rinsed every jolt of pathos from Marie's electrically-charged, stratospheric lines. Her voice was light and clear as a bell, whilst that of Okka von der Damerau was sumptuously in the role of Marie's sister Charlotte. Thomas E. Bauer's smoother baritone didn't possess the same kind of weight – not a problem for his portrayal of an initially fragile, gauche Stolzius, though lacking in brawn when he transformed into a mean machine with a vendetta. Hats off, regardless, for a chilling portrayal of the character’s all-shuddering breakdown. Daniel Brenna packed a punch with a steely tenor perfect for the unforgiving Desportes. Yet another strong performance from Alfred Muff, who made a disturbing Wesener.

At the pounding close of the action, the audience erupted. Cheers were directed at production team and musicians alike, though the biggest roar was reserved for Aikin. Certainly, this was more Lenz's drama rather than Zimmermann's dramatic experiment. But when the drama's as good as this, there is much to applaud.