Germany Bayreuth Festival 2018  – Wagner, Der fliegende Holländer: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival. / Axel Kober (conductor). Festspielhaus, Bayreuth, 30.7.2018. (JPr)
Holländer – Greer Grimsley
Daland – Peter Rose
Senta – Ricarda Merbeth
Erik – Tomislav Mužek
Mary – Christa Mayer
Steuermann – Rainer Trost
Director – Jan Philipp Gloger
Sets – Christof Hetzer
Costumes – Karin Jud
Lighting – Urs Schönebaum
Video – Martin Eidenberger
Dramaturge – Sophie Becker
Chorus Director – Eberhard Friedrich
As Jan Philipp Gloger’s Bayreuth Der fliegende Holländer took to the seas for the last time it was rather like an exclamation mark at the end of a five opera visit that included the ‘spellbinding’ Tristan und Isolde (review click here) and Yuval Sharon’s much-anticipated new Lohengrin (review click here).
I had been discharged, once more, high up on the Green Hill for a final walk down through the crowded pot-holed car park before getting to the road leading to the theatre. Truth-be-told for most of its 142 years the Festspielhaus was virtually ‘access all areas’ and guarded only by a small contingent of police and protected by one solitary fire engine, In the world we currently live in it is sensible that the utmost attention is given to the safety of those visiting and working at the Bayreuth Festival. Whether all the police and security staff are still absolutely necessary – and arrival so tortuous (for some) – when Angela Merkel and all the other prominent people have left after the first night, who can say? One would hope not, but, I suppose, it is better to be safe than sorry.
Jan Philipp Gloger’s revisionist Der fliegende Holländer began in 2012 and opened to a storm of boos. This was either because of the production, or more possibly, because of the controversy about Evgeny Nikitin who was replaced as the Dutchman because of some unfortunate tattoos. The next year that incident was largely forgotten but the staging was still booed. Now in its final year Jan Philipp Gloger was resoundingly cheered at his curtain call: (once again) the more it changes the more it remains the same at Bayreuth! Unless it involves a Wagner, what is often a scandal one year becomes a success the next and so it has been for this Holländer.
During its first year everything was splattered by blood-like red paint: this quickly became huge inky-black Rorschach-like streaks down the flimsy walls on three sides of Christof Hetzer’s factory floor set – thanks to Martin Eidenberger’s videography – with Senta seen using a lot of black paint. A quick reminder of the story should you need it: the Dutchman is cursed, cannot die and condemned to sail endlessly on the world’s oceans seeking to be redeemed by a woman – Goethe’s ‘das Ewig-Weibliche’ – who will love him, remaining true and faithful unto death.
Jan Philipp Gloger makes Der fliegende Holländer a parable of today’s high-tech world with its rampant consumerism and search for profit at whatever cost. Everything – including love and death – has its price. The curtains open on Christof Hetzer’s installation which fills the stage displaying constantly changing streams of digital data. Daland, a factory owner, and his hyper-energetic bookkeeper, the Steersman, are for some reason navigating their way through this in a rowing boat. I have said before how the Dutchman and his crew look as though they have some cybernetic implants connecting them to all this data and making them part of a collective – or hive – reminiscent of the Borg in Star Trek. Perhaps the Dutchman’s only possible release from his curse is by a successful ‘assimilation’ with a human female. Until he finds her he is a lonely figure with more money than is good for him in his carry-on luggage. Nothing can ease this longing for salvation and redemption: neither drugs nor women who sell sex – and he can’t kill himself either.
This is Wagner’s one-act version and we soon see Daland’s factory girls – overseen by Mary – checking and packing electric fans, much needed in Bayreuth tropical summer! His daughter, Senta, fantasises about escaping the boredom. She is fixated by the Dutchman and creates an image of him out of cardboard from the factory floor – and later dons a large pair of wings so she can become his ‘angel’. Her on-and-off boyfriend, Erik, is the maintenance man. The announcement of their men’s apparent return from a sales trip only makes the women work even harder to complete the shipment. The ‘sailors’ are business-suited executives bringing their wives and girlfriends to the launch of a new product. The Steersman is in charge of finance, contracts and sales: he oversees the party that will soon be invaded by the Dutchman’s crew here representing corporate greed.
The Dutchman and Senta have submitted to what destiny has in store for them since their first meeting and he ‘disconnects’ himself from the global market by burning all his money with a hint of Tom Wolfe’s ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’. This Der fliegende Holländer plays out in typical rom-com fashion where the Dutchman misinterprets Senta’s pity for Erik as affection and now believes his hope for that final redemption is a forlorn one. Senta finally vows to be his and stabs herself, as well as, placing what looks like a cardboard crown of thorns on the Dutchman’s head to turn him into a Christ-like figure. The last we see of them is in an embrace atop a ziggurat of boxes as the curtains close. However, they soon open again to reveal that no opportunity has been lost to cash in on the grief of others with a final tableau showing the factory already back at work producing commemorative figures of the tragic couple!
For me the veteran Greer Grimsley – making his debut at Bayreuth in the first of only two performances – was a more ‘human’ Dutchman than some previous singers in this production. Though all the trappings of the world-weary businessman were there, and it was clear he was striving to be loved for himself and not for his money. Ricarda Merbeth’s Senta has clearly been obsessed with the legend of the Flying Dutchman and jumps at the chance to ‘save’ him. Peter Rose’s Daland seemed more venally Rocco-like than ever to underline the relationship between Wagner’s opera and Fidelio I discussed in a recent Longborough review (click here). Daland is always fiddling with his glasses and tie and is a man with great ambitions that are possibly beyond his reach. It is – another debutant – Rainer Trost’s Steersman who seems to have all the imagination and the aspiration to be his own boss. Tomislav Mužek’s Erik lurks around the fringes of the factory always ready with a screwdriver or glue gun.
Since 2012 Der fliegende Holländer – as good as the performances have been – has never featured the best singing of that particular Bayreuth Festival and this year was no exception. The solid, seasoned, singers in this cast were no better or worse than those you would see and hear in any major opera house. Greer Grimsley’s Dutchman seemed far-removed from the otherworldliness of Samuel Youn in 2012. Like Thomas J. Mayer in 2016 Grimsley was another forthright Everyman Dutchman – intense and neither particularly cursed nor ghostly. Now in 2018 Gloger’s Der fliegende Holländer is one everybody can recognise – albeit in an odd setting and featuring unusual costumes.
Ricarda Merbeth never takes any vocal risks to convince me about her psychotic obsession for the Dutchman through her singing, as much as, she does with her compelling acting. Returning too was Christa Mayer who, as before, sang reliably and repeated her nuanced portrayal of Daland’s officious foreperson, Mary. Rainer Trost was the eager-to-please Steersman and sang – the little Wagner gives him – sturdily. Peter Rose repeated his avuncular – yet avaricious – Daland, singing as strongly and resonantly as ever. Erik is a pivotal role but still a fairly minor one in the context of 140 minutes of music. Tomislav Mužek is a robust, secure and lyrical Erik who makes light of the role’s difficulties.
Axel Kober brought tremendous verve to the Overture and it was overall a bracing account of the rampant, tempestuous score from the peerless Bayreuth Festival Orchestra. My final words as nearly always in this opera – and now for the five operas I saw this year – must be for the truly magnificent Bayreuth chorus who – directed as ever by Eberhard Friedrich – were excellent once again and who on their own can make any increasingly demanding pilgrimage to Bayreuth truly worthwhile.
For more about the Bayreuth Festival click here.