An Often Rewarding Der fliegende Holländer Under the Baton of Pablo Heras-Casado


Wagner, Der fliegende Holländer: Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Real / Pablo Heras-Casado (conductor), Teatro Real, Madrid, 17 & 18.12.2016. (JMI)

Der Fliegende Holländer © Javier del Real

Der fliegende Holländer © Javier del Real

Holländer – Evgeny Nikitin/Samuel Youn
Senta – Ingela Brimberg/Ricarda Merbeth
Daland – Kwangchul Youn/Dimitry Ivaschenko
Erik – Nikolai Schukoff/Benjamin Bruns
Steuermann – Benjamin Bruns/Roger Padullés
Frau Mary – Kai Rüütel/Pilar Vázquez

Direction – Alex Ollé (La Fura dels Baus)
Sets – Alfons Flores
Costumes – Josep Abril
Lighting – Urs Schönebaum
Videos – Franc Aleu

The Flying Dutchman is one of the main attractions at the Teatro Real this season: it marks the debut of Pablo Heras-Casado conducting a Wagner opera and features two solid casts. However, the staging, which premiered in October 2014 in Lyon and is a co-production with the Bergen Opera, Opera Australia and the Lille Opera, did not completely convince me. I understand that there are two types of productions: those that are at the service of the opera and those that make the opera serve the production. This one belongs to the second category. La Fura del Baus stagings, whether by Alex Ollé or Carlus Padrissa, always stress originality: sometimes things work out, and sometimes they don’t. In this case, the opera could have been entitled the Fliegende Fura rather than the Fliegende Holländer

In the program notes, Alex Ollé recounts the process of bringing the action into modern times. He confesses that it was not easy today to find a country where a father (Daland) can sell his daughter (Senta), but in a kind of eureka moment he found it in Bangladesh. He also discovered that there is a port there, Chittagong, dedicated to dismantling old ships without the least respect for the environment. With these two concepts Alex Ollé assembled his Dutchman, which is not precisely Wagner’s. We are now in an Asian port where Daland and the Dutchman have arrived, supposedly with their ships to be scrapped; the local women are not spinners but instead retrieve objects from the ships. I say “supposedly” because there are not two ships here but just one, and a very large one indeed. The Norwegians appear to live on the deck while the Dutch are in the hold. At the end, the Dutchman has no boat to climb into because it has been destroyed.

During the Overture, the stage presents us with a huge ship, which will be scrapped during the second act; there is a beach at the front and some sort of sand dunes at the back. (There is also a large space to the right of the stage where a second boat would have fit perfectly.) The Norwegians are dressed as Hindus; the production is completed with good video projections.

For me, the great attraction of these performances was the presence of Pablo Heras-Casado. He is principal guest conductor at the Teatro Real, but is not often present in the theatre pit; and, as mentioned above, this was his debut in a Wagner opera. To all this it should be added that he is one of the most important Spanish musical directors in the younger generation. His conducting was a little disappointing, but perhaps he simply did not reach the extremely high level I had expected. The Overture and Act I were properly handled, but in the Act II duet by the Dutchman and Senta the tension clearly dropped. He was at his best in Act III, and the music was full of energy and strong emotion. The orchestra did well, but we have experienced better performances by them. The chorus was excellent. 

The Dutchman was played by Russian baritone Evegeny Nikitin, whose performance was disappointing. In recent years his voice has lost some of its quality and is now less appealing. Samuel Youn in the second cast has become a specialist in the role since replacing Evgeny Nikitin in Bayreuth four years ago. He is not an extraordinary singer, but these days he is better in the part than Nikitin. His performance had its ups and downs, as did his voice.

Swedish soprano Ingela Brimberg was a compelling interpreter in the role of Senta, and she shone in the first cast, which overall left something to be desired. Her middle range is well-suited to the part although she was somewhat tight at times. The best performer from both casts was German soprano Ricarda Merbeth, one of the finest best interpreters of the character – a truly outstanding Senta.

Kwangchul Youn was a correct Daland in the first cast, and Dimitry Ivaschenko was also good in the second.

Nikolai Schukoff is a tenor who is often seen in Wagner operas. In fact, he came from singing Tristán in Rome, having replaced Andreas Schager. He had some trouble in the first act, and his voice cracked in the Act III arioso. Benjamin Bruns, who played Steuermann in the first cast, was a remarkable Erik in the second cast. He is a sort of Mozart tenor with an attractive timbre and sings with gusto, without pushing his voice, and is able to solve, without apparent effort, the score’s difficulties. It will not be long before we see him as Lohengrin or Walther.

Benjamin Bruns as the Helmsman was a real luxury; Roger Padullés was acceptable in the second cast. Both Kai Rüütel and Pilar Vázquez handled the part of Frau Mary very well.

José M. Irurzun

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