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 director Alvis 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. Blocking and the use of space generally on the Felsenreitschule’s problematic stage was, however, efficient – and having props scattered across it, with the trappings of bourgeois life bleeding into the mess of the soldiers’ scanty possessions, gently suggested that the line separating respectability and desperation is easily crossed.

The musical performances were without exception excellent. I wondered if Laura Aikin, as Marie, might have pushed a little harder at times, but she was not without volume and it is worth remembering that practically all the roles in this opera are unsingable. The temptation to slip into Lulu traits inapt for the role was steadfastly resisted, and though powerless against the forces of male aggression she showed her character to have a core. It was a most matronly brand of compassion Gabriela Beňačková showed Marie as the old Countess, though this offered a rare moment of characterization in which the production and the opera harmonized. With tireless top notes and a compelling sense of line drawn from Zimmermann’s writing, her singing never failed to enthral.

As Stolzius, the more honourable of the two men in Marie’s turbulent life, Tomasz Konieczny underwent a vocal transformation I didn’t believe possible after previously hearing him tackle roles too high for his voice: here the bass had completely dropped out of his baritone to open up new range at the top, much of it surprisingly firm. The embittered decisiveness which grows in him (he eventually poisons the scoundrel Desportes who inveigles himself into Marie’s bed) was well charted. As Desportes, Daniel Brenna led Marie astray with calculating charm and promptly revealed himself as a brute, his character serving a broadly drawn function for the sake of pressing on with the plot. Vocally he stayed focused until his final couple of scenes, when the mercilessly high tessitura shredded most of his top notes. Among the smaller roles there was no weak link.

The cast may have shone brightly but the Vienna Philharmonic was not to be outdone. There is a great deal more freedom to be found in this score than its foreboding surface rigour and mechanical movements suggest, and the orchestra showed us as much with pristine clarity and expressive detail fully in touch with Zimmermann’s idiom. Often this orchestra is too eager to force what it believes to be the relevant flavour of its signature sound onto works it has not yet ‘learned’, a situation which in the case of postwar modernism has led to many a work being played with dark, intense expression and lashings of vibrato, as if a throwback to Berg’s nostalgia for Mahlerian Romanticism. Whatever the closeness between this work and Wozzeck, Zimmermann’s writing has its own idiosyncratic palette, and that it was never upstaged here can surely be put down to Ingo Metzmacher’s detailed knowledge of every inch of this score and good rapport with the orchestra.

This performance was recorded for DVD release and will make a fine addition to the Die Soldaten discography even if the staging cannot match the insight and power of Harry Kupfer’s production for the Staatsoper Stuttgart.