Sofia Opera’s The Flying Dutchman brings the Wagner Festival to a triumphantly spectacular climax

BulgariaBulgaria Wagner, Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Sofia Opera and Ballet / Rosen Gergov (conductor), Pancharevo Lake, 29.7.2023 and 30.7.2023. (GT)

Sofia Opera’s Der fliegende Holländer (first evening)

Sofia Opera’s 2023 Wagner Festival closed at the Pancharevo Lake bringing a fascinating series of opera performances to a close. The Pancharevo Lake is a man-made lake situated 10 kilometres outside the city. The location enjoys a view across the lake opposite verdantly forested hills on the far shore. The venue has 700 seats with a large stage which opens onto the water with lighting and dressing rooms on either side. The orchestra occupies a small building on the left of the seating and is miked up, as are the singers. The venue has been used exclusively by the Sofia Opera and Ballet Company for seven years. A small hotel will be available for guests next year.

My first introduction to the Pancharevo Lake was for a performance of Swan Lake in which tapes accompanied the dancing. Certainly, the venue assists in developing a new audience for the company, for those unfamiliar with the opera theatre. All the three performances that I attended were full and enthusiastically received.

The Flying Dutchman is the seventh opera by Wagner to be staged by Plamen Kartaloff in Sofia; it was premiered at the Sofia Opera and Ballet Theatre and adapted for outdoor performances last year at the lake. In this 2023 staging Kartaloff demonstrated the depth of talent in his company by presenting two different casts on consecutive evenings.

This was not the first staging of The Flying Dutchman in Sofia; the Bulgarian premiere was on 10 February 1930 in which the conductor was Venedikt Bobchevski, while the production was by Nikolay Vekov and Ilya Arnaudov with artwork by Alexander Milenkov. According to contemporary reports, the premiere was a musical sensation as the leading Bulgarian singers of the day performed – Tsvetan Karolev was the Dutchman and Tsvetana Tabakova was Senta. The second staging was not until 1959 when it was realised by Atanas Margaritov, Dragan Kardzhiev and Asen Popov. The Daland was Nicolai Ghiaurov in his stage debut before leaving for Italy. Both productions were in the vernacular, as were all operas of the period.

Plamen Kartaloff explains his presentation: ‘I was strongly influenced by the work of Barbara Hepworth; I built my directorial concept through the creative impulse from the images to their transformations into dynamic dramatic scenes.’ As Hepworth herself said, ‘I have gained very great inspiration from the Cornish land and seascape. The horizontal line of the sea and the quality of light and colour which so excites one’s sense of form.’

Kartaloff explains further: ‘The stage space is formatted in balance with the three important and basic fields required for the action. Foreground, with terrain dividing the two worlds, left to the Norwegians (Daland, the Helmsman, Senta) and the Dutchman. In the background is the sea, raging or calm. A third field expresses the idea of a ship. It has a dual function, on the one hand it is a ship of Daland, but on the other hand, with a transforming purpose also as a ship of the Dutchman. And this contradiction about the perception of the two ships as a single entity becomes a common destiny. The contradictory world of two destinies is a parallel world of the same expectations, torments and feelings. Two souls, having discovered each other, live in fidelity together, briefly in one life and forever, and together in death.’

The set takes the form of a great elliptical structure through which the characters enter and leave. On the left is a sloped pathway, while on the right is a stairway, both going nowhere. Beyond the opening is the sea and the ship, which is shaped somewhat resembling a great fish again with a space through which characters appear and disappear. There was a prequal as the stirring overture begins in which we see Senta and Erik together and mocked by the village girls before vanishing off the stage.

On the first evening, the Helmsman was the tenor Emil Pavlov who acted well and was in excellent voice, and the singer who impressed greatly was Stanislav Trifonov, whose Dutchman was terrifically imposing with a dark baritone fully characterising the tragedy of his part with his stage presence. The scene of the sailors coming ashore was well enacted as they emerged with ropes to secure the boat in a stirring episode, again verifying the fine singing of the men’s chorus.

The admirable Daland of Biser Georgiev’s whose deeply resonant voice against that of Trifonov proved arresting in his presence and acting. ‘Hast du eine Tochter?’ after the Dutchman has shown his box of treasure to which Daland responds positively, to which the Dutchman asserts, ‘Sie sei mein Weib!’

In Act II, the village girls were charming in the spinning song occupying the whole stage and dressed in beautiful light grey dresses, yet on the first evening, the Senta of Lilia Kehayova disappointed in her opening phrase, ‘Was hast du Kunde mir gegeben…’ yet improved momentously in her ballad ‘Traft ihr das Schiff im Meere an…’ splendidly evincing all the emotions for her burgeoning love. Erik’s entry was suitably dramatic with his desperate plea for Senta, ‘Wenn diese Herz im Jammer bricht’. On the first evening, the Erik of Martin Iliev was excellent both vocally and in his characterisation, while on the second evening, Kostadin Andreev’s Erik was more emotional and intense, ‘Und die Ballade – heut noch sangst du sie!’ The Senta of the second evening, Radostina Nikolaeva was more secure in voice, especially in her, ‘Fühlst du den Schmerz, den tiefen Gram..’ equalled by her characterisation as she confirms to her father that she will marry the Dutchman, ‘Hier meine Hand, und ohne Reu.’

Act III opened with wonderful singing from the Norwegians from Daland’s boat, while, beyond them, we see the ghostly spectres of the Dutchman’s ship dressed in spectrally blue attire. The blue flooring between the two vessels begins to froth up as if a storm is brewing, as the Dutchman’s crew sing, ‘Nach dem Land treibt der Sturm, Huissa!’ Senta’s love for the Dutchman causes the distressed Erik to sing, ‘Willst jenes Tags dich nicht mehr entsinnen…’ pleading her to stay with him, here both tenors were on top form, Andreev was more expressive than Iliev, yet both still finely portrayed, though with Iliev having a higher range against Andreev’s more mellow warmer tenor.

Quickly the action develops as the Dutchman steps from his ship through the stormy waters, ‘”Verloren! Ach! verloren!’ as he tells Senta his time has ended, yet Senta cannot give him up, ‘Halt ein! Von dannen sollst du nimmer fliehn!’ The drama is underlined as Erik desperately sings ‘Zu mir, zu mir: Du bist in Satans Klau’n!’ The Dutchman leads Senta through the waves, and in a brilliantly original device, we see the two lovers rising above the ship on a white capsule as if transfigured into heaven.

The staging was a triumph in faithfully presenting Wagner’s opera with an innovative production which was both exciting and created thrilling effects. Certainly, the choral singing of the sailors and village girls was emphasised by colourful dresses of light brown and green, while the men wore everyday working clothes and brown sailor coats. The sets by Kartaloff were masterly in their construction and design, while Andrej Hajdinjak’s lighting was outstanding perfectly fitting Kartaloff’s conception, while the choreography by Tatiana Yaneva was magnificent in using every space of the stage, ensuring this revival by Riolina Topalova was exciting and terrific to watch. In all, this new production is another triumph for Kartaloff and the Sofia Opera.

Kurt Rydl (l, Daland), Ionut Pascu (c, The Dutchman) and  Radostina Nikolaeva (r, Senta)

Certainly, the better singing was heard on the second evening, and this was underscored right at the start with the Daland of Kurt Rydl whose superbly resonant dark bass, was backed by immaculate characterisation. Of the other singers, the Dutchman of Trifonov was magnificent in his presence and voice, bringing out all the tragedy of his character. The second evening’s Dutchman of Ionut Pascu was excellent, yet in my opinion, without the dominating presence of Trifonov. The Mary of Alexandrina Stoyanova-Andreeva was outstanding, yet there was little to differ in the Mary of the first evening from Tsveta Sarambelieva. As the Helmsman, the fine tenor of Daniel Ostretsov (who impressed me as Loge in the Ring) was a more accomplished actor and singer than Emil Pavlov, who perhaps represents the next generation.

The orchestra were excellent under the young Bulgarian conductor Rossen Gergov who showed he was on top of the score with his excellent direction. At the finale of the 2023 Wagner Festival, it was good to witness Nikolai Denkov, Bulgaria’s new prime minister in attendance (he is a scientist by profession). It makes a welcome change to listen to music making in a country where the government supports the arts and most certainly the Sofia Opera and Ballet – because of the standard of their performances – are worthy of Europe’s finest opera theatres. This year’s Ring cycle will be broadcast on Bulgarian TV over several evenings.

Next summer Sofia Opera will revive its Ring cycle and premiere a new Wagner opera, which will surely attract visitors from around the world; the city has many attractions and is relatively inexpensive to travel to from Europe – while, in the meantime, they will take their Die Walküre to Germany. This Wagner Festival has been a revelation for the many guests who attended and shows that Sofia is a sanctuary from Konzept opera, where opera may be enjoyed without false sensationalism and remains true to the composer’s conception.

Gregor Tassie

Director – Plamen Kartaloff
Scenography – inspired by Barbara Hepworth
Style training – Kurt Rydl
Constructive development – Georgi Georgiev
Costumes – Leo Kulash
Light designer – Andrej Hajdinjak
Sound engineer – Vladimir Vladimirov
Artist – Boryan Belchev
Computer designer – Christian Stoyanov
Choreography – Tatiana Yaneva
Assistant Directors – Vera Beleva, Teodor Georgiev
Head of Production – Nela Stoyanova
Chorus master – Violeta Dimitrova

Cast: (First evening, Second evening)
Daland – Biser Georgiev, Kurt Rydl
The Dutchman – Stanislav Trifonov, Ionut Pascu
Erik – Martin Iliev, Kostadin Andreev
The Helmsman – Emil Pavlov, Daniel Ostretsov
Senta – Lilia Kehaylova, Radostina Nikolaeva
Mary – Tsveta Sarambelieva, Alexandrina Stoyanova-Andreeva

Leave a Comment