Bayreuth Festival @ the Liceu: Der Fliegende Holländer

SpainSpain R. Wagner, Der Fliegende Holländer: Soloists, Bayreuth Festival Orchestra & Chorus, Sebastian Weigle (conductor), Liceu, Barcelona, 4.9.2012 (JMI)

Concert Version


Holländer: Samuel Youn
Senta: Ricarda Merbeth
Daland: Franz-Josef Selig
Erik: Michael König
Steuermann: Benjamin Bruns
Mary: Christa Mayer


Dutchman Barcelona Picture © A.Bofill


Having the Bayreuth Festival visit Barcelona’s Liceu on only the second occasion since 1955 will surely be an event to be remembered for many years to come. This time Bayreuth brought along three operas in concert versions – Der Holländer, Lohengrin and Tristan. Sadly however, attendance was not what it should have been, probably due the Liceu’s pricing policy: 224 to 280 euros for the top price seats.

The artistic result of this performance was much as expected, taking into account that the Bayreuth Festival itself has been characterised in recent years by great musical performances coupled with lower standards in purely vocal terms. First rank singers are not so usual on the Green Hill as they once were. At the Liceu, as in Bayreuth, audience reactions rated the performance as a great success and while there were many good reasons for the excitement, not everything offered was worthy of such enthusiasm, at least for this reviewer.

The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra & Chorus were magnificent, admittedly. It was a genuine pleasure to have them in Barcelona and I join in with the general enthusiasm without the slightest reservation.

In Bayreuth (reviewed by my colleague Jens Laurson here) this production had Christian Thielemann conducting: and as all good opera lovers know, Mr. Thielemann is an Olympian among Wagner conductors. Unfortunately, he couldn’t be in Barcelona and in his place we had Sebastian Weigle, a well known presence at the Liceu where he was musical director until not too long ago. Although Mr. Weigle is a genuinely remarkable director, as he showed many times at the Liceu and as he is currently proving again in Frankfurt, he clearly cannot match Christian Thielemann for sheer grandeur… as if anyone actually could. So while he drew a very good performance from an exceptional orchestra and chorus – and in fact this was a very much better Fliegende Holländer than his last Liceu performance back in 2007 – here some of his conducting reminded me quite forcibly of his last appearance, especially in the second Act. In general, the emotion in the duet between Senta and the Dutchman was rather low-key before improving hugely in the opera’s last act.

Bayreuth’s great scandal this summer of course was the expulsion of the Russian baritone Yevgeny Nikitin, who was scheduled as the Holländer in the new production that opened the Festival. This fact gave the Korean baritone Samuel Youn the opportunity to sing the role, in which he received a well-deserved success. At the Liceu he produced the most complete performance among the quartet of protagonists. His voice is good and well projected, and he sings with great expressiveness, although the size of his voice is not especially large. I usually prefer a Dutchman with a darker voice, a true bass baritone, but even so I found this performance fully convincing.

The most important singer in the cast at Bayreuth was Adrienne Pieczonka, who did not appear in these Barcelona performances. In her place, Senta was interpreted by German soprano Ricarda Merbeth, who is always a guarantee of quality in this kind of repertoire. Her performance systematically improved after a rather modest Senta’s ballad: she was much better in the duet with the Dutchman and she was at her best in the last act, coping easily with the score’s difficult high notes.

Franz-Josef Selig was a remarkable Daland. This generally good singer seems to have recovered in recent times from a slump into which he had fallen, after his promising start in the profession in the 90s. Here he sang with elegance and softness, despite a little tightness at the top of his voice.

Erik is a pretty thankless role. Generally he’s a somewhat secondary character, but he has a very exposed arioso in the third act, where Wagner confronts him with obvious difficulties. Really great tenors do not sing this role, so it is rarely particularly well served and Michael König was no exception to this rule. His voice – rather small in size – is acceptable in the center, but at the top his problems are quite evident. In the third act he cracked a couple of times and would probably have been booed at a less triumphalist concert

Benjamin Bruns left a very good impression as the Steuermann and could be an excellent Mozart tenor in my opinion. Finally, Christa Mayer made a remarkable Frau Mary, singing with gusto and expressiveness, although rather short on volume.

José Mª Irurzun