Switzerland Wagner, The Flying Dutchman: Soloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich, conductor: Axel Kober, Zurich Opera, Zurich. 28.2.16. (JR)
Producer – Andreas Homoki
Scenic director – Jan Essinger
Set – Wolfgang Gussmann
Costumes – Wolfgang Gussmann, Susana Mendoza
Lighting – Franck Evin
Video – Tieni Burkhalter
Chorusmasters – Jürg Hämmerli, Michael Zlabinger
Dramaturgy – Werner Hintze
Senta – Meagan Miller
Mary – Lilieana Nikiteanu
Dutchman – Michael Volle
Daland – Christof Fischesser
Erik – Marco Jentzsch
Steersman – Airam Hernandez
Servant -Nelson Egede
Putting on opera in February, with flu epidemics at their height, has its obvious risks. Everyone’s heart sinks and there are audible sighs when, before a note is played, an announcer from the opera house steps in front of the curtain: who is ill, who has pulled out? At this Sunday matinée performance, both male leads had not quite recovered from their flu bugs, but thankfully both had agreed to sing and the audience was asked to be considerate. Too late to fly in Bryn Terfel, I suppose. In the end, both Michael Volle as the Dutchman and Christof Fischesser as Daland, consummate artists, did a fine job and one hardly noticed the odd froggy notes.
This intelligent and innovative Andreas Homoki production is shared with Norwegian Opera and La Scala, a testament to its quality. True, it has no visible boats (apart from in a painting which magically comes to life) and is set in a Hanseatic League shipping company’s office, with the sailors become waist-coated clerks and the women are secretaries with typewriters for spinning wheels. There is a slightly too large and dark rotating wood-panelled tower in the middle of the stage which makes much of the central stage unusable but serves to change the sets for each Act (there is no interval, as Wagner directed) and display some video images. Senta runs about too much, most of the time in her underwear. However, it works well – but I’m still uncomfortable seeing Zulu warriors come on stage wielding bows and arrows taking the place of the Dutchman’s usual ghostly sailors, even if there are visual and historically correct references (maps – eventually going up in flames – of African showing ports) to the plundering of the African colonies. Senta shooting herself at the very end with Erik’s rifle is a clever touch.
Over the last few years I have heard John Lundgren and Bryn Terfel as the Dutchman, and for my money, even with the remnants of a cold, Michael Volle was the most impressive of that trio; perhaps not as menacing as Terfel, but his middle register is very warm and eloquent, his diction – of course – faultless, his acting exemplary. Christof Fischesser had pulled out of the last revival and the première of this run of performances with a cold (Matti Salminen, no less, had stepped in a few years ago, Ain Anger at the première of this revival), so it was good to hear him this time. His youthful bass is rich and mellow, his bottom notes were to savour. Salminen had perhaps looked more the part, more avuncular, but I much preferred Fischesser vocally. He could possibly look more avaricious when eyeing the Dutchman’s jewels.
Last time round it was Marco Jentsch, as Erik, who also had a cold, but this time he was vocally very fit – and splendid. I’ve not heard the role better sung or better portrayed; he has grown into the role. You felt Senta irresponsible for discarding him for a grubby tattooed stranger in a shaggy bear coat and silly black hat with red feather sticking out on top, although admittedly the huntsman Erik can only offer Senta the odd dead rabbit.
Judit Kutasi, who was to sing the overseer Mary, was ill too, so in stepped Liliana Nikiteanu; she had sung the role in earlier revivals. She has a firm, forceful voice and acts well.
Airam Hernandez was a strongly-voiced and melodious Steersman, though sadly the top note (just) eluded him.
Last not least, American soprano Meagan Miller, in her debut in Zurich and in the role, impressed as Senta. Her European debut was 7 years ago, at the Viennese Volksoper as Ariadne; since then highlights have included Eva (Meistersinger) in Leipzig, Minnie (Fanciulla) in Palermo, and the Empress (Frau ohne Schatten) at the Met. Plans include Sieglinde in Leipzig and Washington. Her slight vibrato can be inappropriate and off-putting, her breathing at times a mite asthmatic, but the top notes were spot on and thrilling, and intonation perfect. Some reports of her singing on the opening night were not as complimentary, but by performance number four of the run she had evidently relaxed. Once or twice her German diction let her down (especially on the word “hält” where she ignored the Umlaut twice). Definitely a soprano to watch. Anja Kampe in previous years may have been more neurotic, more emotional, but Miller looked the part and acted more than convincingly.
In the pit, Axel Kober. His career has been focussed thus far on Germany, and mainly in German opera, first Leipzig, then Düsseldorf/Duisburg, but also Hamburg, Berlin, Basle, Strasbourg and Dresden. He is becoming a favourite in Bayreuth. After just a few bars of the overture, we detected the level of his skill and intimate knowledge of the score and heard the full sound and swagger he extracted from the orchestra.
The chorus was full-throated (extras had been brought in) although some of the men are getting visibly and aurally a bit long in the tooth; not all the tenors reached the top notes and then sounded under-powered.