Tcherniakov’s Der fliegende Holländer at Bayreuth was – and is – for here and now

GermanyGermany Bayreuth Festival 2023 [2] – Wagner, Der fliegende Holländer: Soloists, Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra / Oksana Lyniv (conductor). Festspielhaus, Bayreuth, 14.8.2023. (MB)

(l-r) Michael Volle (Dutchman), Nadine Weissmann (Mary), Georg Zeppenfeld (Daland), Elisabeth Teige (Senta) © Enrico Nawrath

Director, Designs – Dmitri Tcherniakov
Costumes – Elena Zaytseva
Lighting – Glen Filshtinsky
Dramaturgy – Tatiana Werestchagina
Chorus master – Eberhard Friedrich

Daland – Georg Zeppenfeld
Senta – Elisabeth Teige
Erik – Tomislav Mužek
Mary – Nadine Weissmann
Steersman – Tansel Akzeybek
Dutchman – Michael Volle

It had been six, not seven, years since I last saw The Flying Dutchman, but it was time. So it was for ‘H’: Holländer, rather than a friend from Line of Duty, though there was certainly something of the allied Nordic Noir genre to Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging, first seen in 2021. The Dutchman revisits his hometown following a horrific crime, resulting in a woman, perhaps a prostitute, left hanging from a window, seen (or dreamt) during the overture. He plays his cards close to his chest, but is bent ultimately on justice, revenge, or both, insofar as they may be separated. Is that what he achieves? He seems to think so, maniacal in a burning triumph to match Götterdämmerung, windows of Tcherniakov’s own small-town, Norwegian set, its church a focal yet distant point of alternative judgement; or, for Nietzscheans, alternative death, ablaze. Until, that is, Mary, the ‘normal’ yet apparently decent animating future of community singing (rather than spinning), desperate to escape from that world, shockingly shoots him dead at the close, the ironic strains of Wagner’s 1859 ‘redemptive’ ending telling their own tale from the pit.

Mary, it seems in this retelling, is Senta’s mother or stepmother. She is certainly resented earlier by Senta, who in crazed fashion – is she high, a not uncommon reaction to small-town life? – supplants her in front of the choir, waving her arms around to little apparent musical effect. The Dutchman’s picture, however, still causes a stir. To have Nadine Weissmann, Frank Castorf’s unforgettable Erda, in this newly important, and sympathetic role, added intriguing, intertextual possibilities to this mind, although that is perhaps for the most part a private matter. Weissmann’s performance was as musically endearing as it was dramatically powerful, its silences and quiet looks as potent as the final shot.

This is, among other things, a tale of storytelling. The Steersman, Daland, the Dutchman, Senta, most likely everyone has a story to tell. The past, especially as understood by the present, is like that. For the woman hanged was the Dutchman’s mother, and it would seem, Daland’s lover. (I think it was a little more than a transactional arrangement, though I am not entirely sure. Perhaps they were not either.) The town bar is a dangerous, masculine place of storytelling; the Dutchman has money, and thus can buy men and time. The choir is most probably the bar’s feminine equivalent. At any rate stories are told and heard, decisions are made, and steps are taken towards the final tragedy.

For Senta, it has been a tale cleverly poised between Nordic Noir and Beige (the latter literally in Elena Zaytseva’s costumes for her and the womenfolk). And it is emblematic of the success of the whole, almost whatever one may think of parts of it, that this is seen and heard at all levels. When Tansel Akzeybek’s Steersman sang his song, eliciting derisory laughter, the number of different tones and expressions used, without sacrifice to the whole, transformed it into a mini-cantata or indeed an encapsulation or anticipation, of the whole drama. The tragedy of having to live in the circumstances given and which cannot be altered is not, of course, uncommon. It seems, however, unusually apparent and immediate on this occasion. That thought may be politicised; it may be internalised; it may even be transmuted into geography. What is this Norway, we might ask, for Wagner, for Tcherniakov, for the performers, for us? To say it is imagination is too easy, although there is surely an element of that. We all create it before our eyes and ears, although certainly not with free will. Always the grey, the beige, the community, and likewise our dreams, fantasies, and plans to escape beckon, thwart and are thwarted, impart life and death.

Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Der fliegende Holländer (final scene) © Enrico Nawrath

Michael Volle’s complete portrayal, as visceral as it was detailed, as rooted in Schubert ballads and even Bach as it was echt-Wagnerian, was a rare prize, fundamental to our experience, as was Georg Zeppenfeld’s luxury casting as Daland. I say ‘luxury’, but in fact a signal virtue of this performance and this production was to have one realise quite how important and complex the role should be. Elisabeth Teige’s Senta was fully the equal of the portrayals of her illustrious peers. A fittingly Nordic heroine, as steely as Birgit Nilsson when required, yet probably more variegated in response to very particular stage requirements, she understandably received thunderous applause. Erik is a difficult role; one cannot (usually) be unduly heroic or assertive. Tomislav Mužek nevertheless impressed in another excellent performance.

Eberhard Friedrich’s Bayreuth Festival Chorus was likewise on first-rate form, as it must be. A rooted community that can yet be swayed, it offered an almost Bach Passion-like combination of participation and observation. That goes for Tcherniakov as well as Wagner. Much the same may be said of what Wagner would soon designate his Greek chorus, the orchestra. If Oksana Lyniv drove on hard at times, not least during the overture, and sometimes seemed more inclined to look back toward the number-opera past than forward to the music-drama future, hers was always a musically and dramatically motivated reading, strongly in sympathy with the production. The orchestra itself was incisive, decisive and full of telling colour, such as Wagner had learned in Paris. My ears may still tend, say, towards Wolfgang Sawallisch in 1959, but this was – and is – a Dutchman for here and now. After all, the past, constantly retold and reinvented, is always with us, terrifyingly so as the house from which that terrible deed was done burns.

Mark Berry

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