François Girard’s static, drab, and unevenly cast Met Der fliegende Holländer

United StatesUnited States Wagner, Der fliegende Holländer: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York / Valery Gergiev (conductor). Performance recorded on 10.3.2020 (directed by Gary Halvorson) and reviewed as Met Opera on Demand. (JPr)

Anja Kampe (Senta) in Act II Der fliegende Holländer
(c) Ken Howard/Met Opera

Director – François Girard
Set designer – John Macfarlane
Costume designer – Moritz Junge
Lighting designer – David Finn
Projection Designer – Peter Flaherty
Choreographer – Carolyn Choa
Dramaturg – Serge Lamothe

Dutchman – Evgeny Nikitin
Senta – Anja Kampe
Daland – Franz-Josef Selig
Erik – Sergey Skorokhodov
Mary – Mihoko Fujimura
Steersman – David Portillo
Senta Dancer – Alison Clancy

In March, just before the world entered these current dark, dispiriting, days I was on the verge of reviewing two new opera productions. Both opportunities were lost as first the Royal Opera House closed and so too did New York’s Metropolitan Opera. I know in the greater scheme of things this is of no great significance, but it has been good to finally get to see Fidelio (click here) and now the new Der fliegende Holländer that I missed.

Wagner’s early opera is now available thanks to Met Opera on Demand and is introduced on their website (click here) as ‘In March 2020, the Met made the difficult choice to cancel the remainder of the 2019–20 season in an effort to keep audiences, performers, and staff members safe from the COVID-19 pandemic. The decision also meant ending the Live in HD season early, only days before a scheduled transmission of François Girard’s stirring new production of Der fliegende Holländer. Fortunately, as part of regular preparations for an HD broadcast, a prior performance of the opera was recorded as a camera rehearsal. In this high-definition “scratch taping”, celebrated conductor Valery Gergiev is on the podium for Wagner’s breakout operatic masterpiece, an eerie ghost story about the otherworldly Flying Dutchman’. Well, it makes you wonder what we actually do see from the Met’s Live in HD transmissions as this Der fliegende Holländer is very far removed from the result you might expect from a ‘camera rehearsal’ or ‘scratch taping’ and is exactly what you would have expected to see and hear in the cinema!

One of the stories that used to raise a laugh when I lectured about Wagner was how the young conductor/composer in 1839 boarded the schooner ‘Thetis’ – along with his wife Minna and Newfoundland dog Robber – to flee his creditors by escaping to England. The voyage of eight days took three and a half weeks thanks to storms and rough seas that more than once threatened to engulf the small boat! At one point, the captain took refuge in a Norwegian fjord and in My Life (a highly questionable autobiography), Wagner wrote ‘A feeling of indescribable content came over me when the enormous granite walls echoed the hail of the crew as they cast anchor and furled the sails. The sharp rhythm of this call clung to me like an omen of good cheer and shaped itself presently into the theme of the seamen’s song in my Fliegende Holländer. The idea of this opera was, even at that time, ever present in my mind, and it now took on a definite poetic and musical colour under the influence of my recent impressions. Well, our next move was to go on shore. I learned that the little fishing village at which we landed was called Sandwike,’ This eventually became the setting for his opera which had originally been set in Scotland.

While Wagner was music director of the opera in Riga, he read Heinrich Heine’s The Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski about the legend of the Flying Dutchman. Subsequently he wrote, Heine’s novel ‘made an indelible impression on my mind; yet at the time, it did not gather enough force to compel me into using it creatively.’ It took that terrible North Sea journey to concentrate Wagner’s mind, apparently. The opera’s overture is a the perfect musical depiction of a raging sea, and in Act III, when the Dutchman’s crew stirs to life after being taunted by the Norwegian sailors, the orchestra vividly conjures up a violent storm raging around the Dutchman’s ship.

What François Girard’s new staging shows us during the overture is a double for Senta (Alison Clancy) undulating – in familiar Carolyn Choa choreography – as if in a vortex, possibly drowning, with video projections (by Peter Flaherty) of billowing and crashing waves and the ghostly outline of the Dutchman’s ship. In the end, sadly, the gyrating seems interminable.

In 2013 Girard’s new Parsifal for the Met was post-apocalyptic and soaked in blood (click here), here the longer it all goes on, the more it seems like a costumed semi-staging. Rarely does any one character look at another and nearly everyone, gesticulating chorus included, faces out into the audience. We appear to be witnessing the action as if we had all entered the portrait of the Flying Dutchman that Senta obsesses over. Otherwise all we see of it is the image of a huge eye at the back of the stage. For the Dutchman’s appearance in Act II (though the opera is performed without an interval) the eye sinks down as he rises from below. Often – though this was difficult to discern in the recording – the Dutchman’s movements were mirrored by a huge sinister silhouette projected at the rear of the stage.

In the first scene, a large representation of Daland’s ship is hauled onto the stage with ropes by a male chorus of sailors to the side of a rocky promontory that is a permanent fixture of John Macfarlane’s set. Surely with modern stage technology something better than this was possible? The Dutchman emerges if out of nowhere and just stands and delivers ‘Die first ist um’. The ship, Steersman, and Daland looked as if they could have come from any previous production in the history of the Met. The Dutchman – costumed a bit like Darth Vader without the helmet – has a ship carrying huge nuggets of gold it seems and Daland is bribed by one of them.

For the ‘Spinning Chorus’ in Act II, the women are ‘weaving’ long ropes dangling from the top of the Met’s stage, which at times means just jiggling them. Eventually they are plaited and looked at little like ships’ rigging, but to me also looked like trees. As the Dutchman leaves the stage at the end of the act, he makes these unravel. For Act III there is more stylised hand gestures for all the merry-making and the Dutchman’s ghostly crew are heard but not seen though Daland’s men appear to get their hands on some of his gold. At the end Senta is lifted up and down symbolising her disappearance beneath the waves which we see projected on the stage as the throng sink to the floor just leaving Erik, Daland, Mary, and the Steersman standing up looking out into a glowing red sunrise (I guess?) of a new dawn.

It is always difficult to comment on the musical performance unless you are in the actual opera house. Valery Gergiev sounded as if he commanded his accomplished Met Orchestra to produce an aural soundscape of a turbulent sea and the tormented soul of the Dutchman.

Infamously Evgeny Nikitin stood down from the new 2012 Bayreuth Der fliegende Holländer because of a tattoo that may or may not have been a swastika, and only came aboard this production when Sir Bryn Terfel broke his ankle. He was impassive and wooden in his acting – which maybe what Girard wanted of course – and engaged in (operatically) stock hand movements. Nikitin’s Dutchman railed against his fate somewhat gruffly and he never brought across the character’s existential pain at his plight.

In a very uneven cast, Franz-Josef Selig was the bluff, stentorian, Daland yet had little of the vocal resonance to engage the listener in his machinations. Mihoko Fujimura was making her Met debut as the straitlaced, no-nonsense, Mary but it sounded if it had come a little too late for her. On the plus side, David Portillo was a mellifluous Steersman and Sergey Skorokhodov returned to the Met and was a sturdy, ardent, Erik and made light of the role’s fearsome tessitura. Anja Kampe was another Met debutant as Senta who was dressed in red throughout which provided the only real splash of colour in a drab staging. I never warmed to her self-absorbed portrayal, nor indeed, her singing which had an effortful steely intensity and was marred by the need to strain for her highest notes at times.

Whilst there must be other Wagner directors the Met could engage; François Girard will be back with a new Lohengrin if the Met – and indeed all of us – survive these difficult times.

Jim Pritchard

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