Der fliegende Holländer
Der fliegende Holländer, Bayreuth Festival, Germany, August 2016. Director Jan Philipp Gloger, conducted by Axel Kober, reviewed by Tony Cooper
Wagner’s first mature opera written in 1841, Der fliegende Holländer, was directed with great flair and imagination by the German theatre director, Jan Philipp Gloger. Not only was it dramatically convincing, it was totally within Wagner’s world.
Daring in his approach, Gloger boldly shifted the scenario from a ‘nautical’ to a ‘business’ setting, taking on board Wagner’s socialist dislike of money, materialism and basic greed and turning the opera into a critique of capitalism.
The ‘sea’, for instance, manifested itself as a worldwide web of international money markets. And the Dutchman – a Master of the Universe, to borrow Tom Wolfe’s phrase – is happy to make money off the backs of others but, at the same time, is cursed to sail the High Seas eternally. He can only be redeemed by something non-material, a woman’s love.
The arrival of the Dutchman projected a haunting image. He emerged as if coming from the bowels of an ocean-liner. But, in fact, he was seen making his way through a city’s business and financial district dressed as a smart businessman pulling a black-wheelie suitcase stashed full of bank notes and steering an uneven course through an ‘ocean’ of greed, corruption and opportunism. A scantily dressed whore cuts across his path, trying her luck but to no avail. She was not on his agenda.
But Daland was. Here, no longer a sea captain but an ambitious small-time factory-owner, producing ‘ready-to-use’ table top desk-fans. Peter Rose delivered a rich reading of the part, his deep bass voice clear and accurate, while Benjamin Bruns as the Steersman (now a fussy-minded management accountant) proved a good running-mate, delivering a masterful account of the sailor’s love song while on watch holed up with Daland in a small dinghy ‘beached’ in an urban landscape, the only hint of any nautical life.
Daland – whose business interests were a spit in the ocean compared to the global dealings of the Dutchman, is quick to tempt the stranger with his daughter Senta who wants something better than slaving away in her father’s factory.
During the Monologue, the Dutchman cuts into his arm but he doesn’t bleed, indicating his immortality; while his body scars hint, perhaps, at attempted suicide. Gloger saw fit to record his scars ‘black’, while Senta – sexually-repressed, unsettled and dissatisfied – builds and admires an effigy of the Dutchman (daubed with ‘black’ blood) hoping for release.
The role of the Dutchman was sung by Thomas J Mayer and Senta by Ricarda Merbeth. She deployed an extraordinary range of vocal and dramatic colour heard to good effect in a moving account of the Ballad.
And the scene in which Senta and the Dutchman meet – with Daland prancing about them like an oriental marriage-broker but being completely ignored – was met by the total silence and the nervous excitement that only a live performance can yield.
The love between them releases the Dutchman from his curse, enabling him to bleed as a normal mortal and, therefore, to die to attain his goal. But it also gives Senta the inspiration (the life-blood as it were) to release her from her woeful position.
In some ways, she portrayed the socialist hope that society can only be built on love rather than gold. And the wings that she adorns towards the end of the opera were symbolic of that freedom.
Daland’s factory was impressive with its robotic workforce, replacing the team of traditional spinners looking sweet and pretty in their peasant-designed dresses and attired in light-blue trouser uniforms with matching caps tastefully designed by Karin Jud. It added a new dimension to their big number, The Spinning Chorus, as they worked systematically under the careful eye of Mary (Senta’s nurse but now the factory-floor supervisor). The role was sung with authority by Christa Mayer, while Austrian tenor, Andreas Schager, delivered a strong and confident performance as Erik. His emotional confrontation with Senta concerning her infatuation with the Dutchman was carried out in true matrimonial style.
In all of Wagner’s operas the chorus play a pivotal role and much credit to chorus master Eberhart Friedrich. Conductor Axel Kober was equally impressive in the pit, energising his players with the necessary power needed to capture the mood and the passion of Wagner’s compelling score.
Martin Eidenberger conjured up some excellent video sequences. And Christof Hetzer created a complicated set laced with strips of bright-white neon lighting showing a digitalised-number board continually on the go, echoing, perhaps, a traders’ floor of a stock exchange or a time-clock counting the days left to the Dutchman.
When the end comes for the chosen couple – entwined in an unromantic setting on a pile of cardboard boxes – true Wagnerian redemption manifests itself in a memento of them in a limited edition, fan-based, china-coated statuette. Such was their fame. And, of course, this provides another business and money making initiative for Daland and his side kick.
TONY COOPER is QR’s opera critic