Bayreuth Festival 2012 [1] Wagner’s Dutchman Offers Critique of Capitalism

GermanyGermany Wagner, Der fliegende Holländer: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival / Christian Thielemann (conductor), Bayreuth Festspielhaus, 24.8.2012. (JPr)

This new production of Der fliegende Hollander began in a controversy over tattoos but by its last performance of this season that was largely forgotten and a majority of the audience could ‘delight’ in booing as the curtain finally fell to voice their displeasure at Jan Philipp Gloger’s new staging of the earliest Wagner opera currently performed at the annual Bayreuth Festival. Apart from Evgeny Nikitin’s departure from the title role of this new Holländer this year’s festival – as far as I can see – has been remarkably free of all the politics, hype and scandal often associated with it. Nikitin only stepped aside when the German media drew attention to what may – or may not – have been a swastika tattooed on his chest. This was an unpleasant reminder of the Festival’s Nazi collaborations during the 1920s and 1930s, and as such threatened to undermine this new staging of Der fliegende Holländer.

The young Gloger gives us plenty to think about and whilst some ideas work, others – particularly the ending – do not. With the Werkstatt Bayreuth situation still much in evidence under co-directors Katharina Wagner and Eva-Wagner Pasquier many things may change before it is revived next year and I expect its weaknesses to be addressed.

We all know the legend of course: the Dutchman is actually unable to die, is condemned to sail endlessly around the world’s oceans and can only be redeemed by a woman’s eternal love. Gloger sees this as a parable of today’s hectic world driven by technological advance and the greed for profit and offers us a critique of capitalism with its ‘boom and bust’ cycles. The sailors are business-suited sales executives bringing their wives to a product launch in Act III. Right from the start there has been no sea or storms or Dutchman’s ship and the closest we have to this from Christof Hetzer’s massive installation at the beginning is the constant flickering of a stream of data around the stage. Digital displays possibly reveal the ups and downs of the global stock markets but they might have been anything. For Act II – though remember this was Wagner’s later ‘no interval’ version – we see a large number of women happily working in a warehouse packing the product their husband’s sell, namely fans – much needed in the usual very humid Bayreuth weather! As Gloger mentions in the printed programme he has avoided the pitfall of yet another version of the over-familiar ‘Senta’s Dream’ but has failed to develop further the oft-repeated warehouse setting last seen in Jonathan Kent’s setting for English National Opera when they were packing ships-in-bottles. Here the men and women are equally integrated into the world of organized labour and the announcement of the men’s return only causes the women to work harder and pack their boxes with more gusto, rather than get ready – as usual – to party.

Quite what the boss, Daland, and his officious assistant, the Steersman, are doing in a small rowing-boat at the start of the opera I couldn’t grasp as it does not really fit in with anything. The Dutchman is a member of a race of cybernetic organisms similar to those remembered in Star Trek that are part of hive. Perhaps he can only be redeemed – i.e. achieve a sort-of ‘perfection’ – by assimilating with a human woman who vows to be faithful to him unto death. Despite his carry on suitcase of money he drags along, the Dutchman is yet to find someone so faithful and he is bored by his inability to kill himself, as well as, all the hookers and hangers-on his fame and money has attracted. A timely lesson here for a certain youngish British prince!

Senta wants to escape her humdrum factory life and so creates a childlike version of the Dutchman, his ship and his world, from the packing boxes crudely painted in red from a paint pot used by Erik, who is besotted with her. Unfortunately he is only a handyman and doesn’t have the money she craves and neither is he able to satisfy her evident sexual urges. When the Dutchman and Senta meet they recognize what each can do for the other. The only way to escape the all-encompassing market domination is death. After all the Dutchman’s money is burnt – in a stage picture that reminded me of the ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’- Senta stabs herself eventually with scissors and this apparently redeems the cursed Dutchman. They are both covered in blood but together in each other arms atop a small ziggurat of cardboard boxes they are happy to have escaped the absolute power of money in the prevailing society. So far so good. However, at this point the curtain falls temporarily and soon rises to show nothing has changed for those left behind and the cooling fans of the future now include in their designs that final image of the dying lovers, Senta and the Dutchman. I thought Gloger’s ending failed to bring all that had gone before to a suitable conclusion.

The evening was an undoubted musical success however as it should be for a last performance of six when nobody has anything to gain from holding back. I certainly had no sense – as perceived from the early reviews – that Samuel Youn as the Dutchman was underpowered as he revealed a sculpted bass-baritone voice equal to the role’s demands. He used the text with great intelligence and his character came to life on occasions especially near the end when he deems himself betrayed by Senta even though he has been offstage for most of her duet with the lovelorn Erik. But (there is often a ‘but’) … Youn’s Dutchman seemed distinctly robotic at times, there was very little that was human about this Dutchman despite an apparently ability to bleed – though that is perhaps precisely what Gogler wanted rather than any possible lack of personality in the singer.

Adrianne Pieczonka was an intense, strong-willed Senta, more sexually frustrated and somewhat less neurotic than is usually portrayed; her voice was bright and lyrical with no jagged edges. In London Stuart Skelton was exaggeratedly over-praised recently but the equally-burly Michael König here was certainly one of the best and most secure Eriks I have heard; he sang with such passion at times it became clear how much this role owes to Florestan. Franz-Josef Selig’s wonderfully sung Daland is the great miser for whom increasing his profit margin is all-important and could come even at the cost of his daughter. Benjamin Bruns brought an elegant light tenor to his eye-catching portrayal of the Steersman as punctilious ‘gofer’ and Christa Mayer did what little Wagner gives her well as the officious warehouse manager.

The chorus plays a large part in Der fliegende Holländer of course and at Bayreuth it is one of the world’s best under Eberhard Friedrich’s direction. However even some of the men seemed unusually under pressure having to leave the stage to return as the Dutchman’s ghostly crew – here members of that ‘Borg hive’ I wrote about earlier. This resulted in the spectral chorus having less of an impact than it often does.

Nevertheless with Christian Thielemann – music advisor to Bayreuth and naturally one of the world’s leading Wagnerians – in the pit conducting the excellent Bayreuth Festival Orchestra it was never likely to be less than a fine Holländer and so it proved. I think he was just a little over-concerned with ‘balance’ to make it memorable. This was discussed in an interview with Thielemann about the opera in the programme and appears something that inspired his careful account of the score – that however broodingly intense, lyrically passionate or demonic it was by turns – he has yet to make his own in my opinion.

Jim Pritchard

Further reviews of the final performances of the 2012 Bayreuth Festival will follow over coming days.