Archive for April, 2010

The Dutchman With the Flying Colours

April 21, 2010

Your Operatoronto watched the dress rehearsal of The Flying Dutchman in Toronto last night, and is delighted to be among the first to declare it a great success! After the Wagner’s Ring, which opened a new building of the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto several years ago, this is the best production by far. It strikes the perfect balance between innovative fresh flavour without venturing too deeply into the unchartered territories of theatrical experiment. It is sharp-edged, brisk, clear and tense. It flows effortlessly with numerous fine, captivating theatrical effects tying together a sophisticated scene, superb singing and self-confident orchestra interpretation.

It is played in one act with minimal changes to the scene, which consists of a slanted rectangular shape with a spiral metal staircase in one corner and a large engine wheel protruding from the floor. Underneath the tilted floor is another area serving merely as  a hint of the Dutchman’s ship with his ghostly, ghastly crew in an imprisoning dark and forgotten dungeon-like space populated by ghost-like creatures, mostly motionless. The Dutchman is dressed in a horizontally stripped outfit resembling the traditional idea of a prison uniform, with a wornout, colourless overcoat.

What is static in the major elements of the scene is compensated for in the dynamic of the light and choreography. The effects of light and choreography become especially powerful in the scenes involving the sailors, spin maidens and wedding festivities. Well rehearsed, synchronized motions supported by rhythmic sounds produced by hitting the feet against the floor or hands against the table consolidate the already mighty sound of the chorus to an ecstatic crescendo. As in any refined drama, a moment of silence has its place and purpose of enhancing the tension. In this Dutchman the dramatic value of pause  is indeed brought to a new level.

The sound of the orchestra, with Johannes Debus conducting, reminds me of good cooking. This Dutchman brings up the flavours of individual instruments and blends well into a whole, bringing to the surface some gems hidden in the score, and although you may have heard the Dutchman many times before, you may be surprised to hear something new this time.

Evgeny Nikitin as the Dutchman projects with ease and confidence his richly nuanced voice  over the orchestra and gives a coherent and emotionally subtle rendition of this tragic Dutchman. 

Our local newspaper reported the other day that this particular Dutchman is a famous man who in his spare time plays drums and chills out with booze, rock-‘n-roll and recreational botany. He was the Dutchman in the infamous Leipzig production which was short-lived because it was much too radical, and also appeared in this role in the Mariinsky Theatre. He happens to be one of those few fabulous male voices that reach us originating from the Arctic Circle, joining the two other celebrities Peter Mattei and Dmitry Hvorostovsky. 

Julie Makerov as Senta needed little warming up but quickly got into the mood, with the voice of capacity, and strength in a wide spectrum of emotions. Mats Almgren as Daland may be short of depth if we are used to listening to Matti Salminen in the popular available productions of the Dutchman. There is a plushy, almost furry quality to his voice and I hesitate to be harsh. After all it was only a dress rehersal.

Enthusistic and energetic Robert Künzli  portrayed an Erik who indeed possesses the features one would expect in a hunter. I remember how meek and pathetic Erik was in the Bayreuth production, with that bunch of wilted flowers. This Erik has a rifle and is a man who stands his earthly ground.

The overall effect of listening to and watching this Dutchman equals in excitement the effect of watching a good thriller.

How does this production portray the Dutchman? His outfit tells us that he is a prisoner, who hides at first behind his worn-out cloak. This worn-out cloak is a material equivalent to the sad song of his curse to roam the seas and only every seven years to go ashore in hope that he will find a woman who will truly love him, which is his only chance for salvation. In a way he may be an old Eugene Onegin long after his Tatiana said to him her final and painful “it is too late”. He could also be an old Alfredo Germont whose vanity remained clueless to the rumour of his heart.

At one point Senta even takes his overcoat and puts it on herself, thereby taking a symbolic vow to accept the burden which conceals his imprisonment. But it is all in vain. There is no redemption for the Dutchman. He remains within the realm of his old misery, the hostage of his wealth and the prisoner of his cursed life. He is deeply immersed in the sleep of his illusion of power when he flashes his wealth. He actually loves his misery when he sings the song of his imprisonment. He is not prepared to trade this curse for the commitment of love. When Senta in her wedding gown approaches the Dutchman he moves backwards and up the stairs away from her. He traces his way back through the same route by which he first descended onto the shore of Sandviken harbour. The Dutchman is a man who is not ready to trade his life of suffering for what he claims he is in search of. In a way, he is an ordinary mortal like so many of us in our everyday lives. He is not ready for the transformation and continues to repeat his oblivious and unconscious life.

Senta, as she is portrayed here, is committed to her vow. She finds her salvation in death, which comes upon her as liberation. It is interesting that her death is not a suicide. It tells us that the path of commitment to true love may not be leading to “happily ever after” but is surely a release from illusion and leads to freedom, if we take her death symbolically.  

The production intervened with the libretto in a minimal and interesting way at the very end, but I will not spoil it for those who are yet to see this fabulous Dutchman of which all Torontonians could  be proud.

I would like to mention in bold Anne Melitello for lighting, Sandra Horst as chorus master, Christopher Alden as director and whoever is responsible for choreography deserves a special credit.

Waiting for the Dutchman

April 14, 2010

In view of the upcoming premiere of the Flying Dutchman in Toronto let’s do a little warm-up sparring for that event.

A posting in the April edition of the “Opera News” says that the Wagner Society of New York is having its “Der fliegende Holländer 30th Annual Seminar”. Congregating for 30 years about a single opera does not sound exaggerated to anyone familiar with the libretto of the  The Flying Dutchman. The story has so many layers, possible angles of interpretation, and readings that the preceding 29 years of seminars may likely have not uncovered all its veils. It is equally unimaginable that the richness and depth of this text can be revealed in a single production.

The Flying Dutchman is often referred to as the first distinctly Wagner’s opera. Wagner was 30 years old when he composed it. As a comparison, Giuseppe Verdi, who was born the same year as Richard Wagner, composed his La Traviata ten years after The Flying Dutchman. The inspiration for this opera came to Wagner as a result of a stormy sea voyage of his own. Allegedly it was a trip from Riga to London when Wagner was running away from his creditors. It is also often mentioned that the stormy wind may be heard throughout this opera.

The title character is a mysterious man under the curse who can only be saved by the faithful love of a woman.

The plot goes like this:

Escaping the sea storm The Dutchman anchors his ghostly ship in the port of a little Norwegian village, shortly after a local captain Daland has done the same with his small ship. The Dutchman offers Daland a case of jewels as payment for his overnight hospitality, having introduced himself as a mysterious traveler cursed to roam the world in search of a woman who would love him. Daland is a man who values material wealth and readily offers not only accommodation but his daughter in marriage too. Senta, Daland’s daughter, recognizes in this cursed tramp the essence of her life dream and pledges her heart to him. On her departure with the Dutchman she pauses on seeing her desperate fiance, Erik. The moment of her compassionate sentiment is taken as a betrayal of trust by the Dutchman. Each of them dies individually.  The Dutchman sinks with his ship.  Senta meets her death as she falls off the cliff.

Senta is in many ways similar to the Dutchman. She does not roam the sea but she roams her fantasy world and worships the image of a man of her dreams. At the other end are the ordinary mortals: Captain Daland, Mary the chief spinstress, Erik the hunter and  fiance of Senta, Daland’s Steersman, sailors and spinning maidens.    

Daland’s household is kept running by sailors and spinning maidens who are ordinary people who live their earthly/nautical lives and are under the command of their ordinary elders (steersman and Mary respectively).  

Senta’s fiancé is Erik the hunter, an ordinary man offering her an orderly mortal life.

The two main starting points may be traced through the two main characters of the drama: Senta and the Dutchman, each bearing a curse of its own.

If we notch up this story to another level of generalization, the legend of the Dutchman and Senta may be seen as a story of human hubris. When the day’s work is done and the needs of daily living have been attended to, one finds oneself at the beginning of a different quest. It is a search for soul food, for the spiritual peace in living in this world. In that pursuit Senta, Daland, Erik and the Dutchman represent different paths. They could be seen as individual pathways or grouped as symbolic representatives of forces that generate inner friction, the resultant of which would be his or her course of action determined by the outcome of this inner struggle rather than a free choice. From this perspective the characters of Daland, Mary and Steersman may be seen as possible paths in life where one can settle for less and discover his or her purpose in serving duty, amassing material wealth, or surrendering the soul quest to simple rituals. The Dutchman and Senta epitomize those who haven’t settled yet. Their station in life has passed the point of serving the ordinary duties of mortal human beings, whether by the status in society they were born into, or by rising to it.  Neither can compromise and accept the mortal, mediocre or ordinary. In their restlessness lies the seed of their tragic end. It is the striving that prevents them from finding. The more they strive, the faster they stride into inevitable doom. By lacking capacity for compassion or forgiveness, each of them misses the mark.

When their paths cross they do not see what they have been looking for, as they are blinded by the self-projected illusion of what it is that they are looking for. This is only one cursory possible reading of the story.

I have seen two DVD recordings of this opera.

The Bayreuth Festspiele production was under the artistic supervision of the late Wolfgang Wagner.  conductor: Woldemar Nelsson; staged and directed by Harry Kupfer; stage design: Peter Sykora; costumes: Reinhard Heinrich; the Dutchman: Simon Estes; Daland: Matti Salminen; Erik: Robert Schunk; Senta: Lisbeth Belslev; Mary: Anny Schlemm; Helmsman: Graham Clark.

This production of 25 years ago came up with staging and choreography which was not tightly incorporated into a whole. The character of Senta was depicted in the spirit of the obsessive/compulsive madness of a sorrowful young woman out of her mind and without a single lucid moment throughout the opera, which unjustly reduces the breadth of this character to an easily dismissible cliché. The subtle esoteric thread got suffocated in the agitated acting and deprived the character of Senta of bringing out her many other facets. Daland, as a materialist, was not depicted fully in his down-to-earth lust for wealth. The stage is set in such a way that the brown brick walls of the early industrial-age architecture depicting the hollow hall of Daland’s residence becomes easily re-arranged into a fishing village port and back again into the dark interior of the household hosting the Dutchman. The Dutchman in Mr. Estes’ rendition is perhaps too potent and masculine a Dutchman. After all Mr. Estes played basketball in his youth and his physical appearance is impressive and bold. He therefore lacks weariness by virtue of his natural look. Due to this aptitude he appears in this particular role at moments slightly eager, the impression Wagner suggested be avoided in portraying the Dutchman. Mr. Estes’ bass-baritone voice is a treat to listen to. Male African American singers are still a rare phenomenon. He is a grandson of an Iowa slave. While his career blossomed in Europe since 1960, the recognition in his native USA was held back due to racial prejudice. His first appearance in the Met was in 1982.

The storm is depicted in the frightening flashes akin to those we see in horror films. The Dutchman’s ship appears and the mysterious vessel resembles a seashell held by giant hands with its opening held vertically, which when open releases the Dutchman in the chains of his curse. This depiction of the Dutchman’s ship is somewhat naïve and literal but nevertheless visually effective when topped by the handsome Simon Estes as the Dutchman. The weakest link in this production is Senta, who is overly disconnected and to whom neither Erik nor the Dutchman may relate in any believable way. Senta is simply overdone in her hysterical ecstasy. The orchestral and vocal renditions over the last 25 years have been celebrated and praised in this groundbreaking production, which was probably fascinating at that time. However, the dramatic potentials of this story remain unexplored. A credit must be given to the scene of festivities in Act III for a stylish costume and masks treating Daland’s crowd as a single character. The overriding impression of this production could be phrased as: scary & spooky, which is unfair to the dramatic and mystical potentials of the plot. 

Four years later came the Savonlinna Opera Festivale production of 1989, which was staged in Olavinlinna castle, Finland.  It is a deeper digging into the riddles of this libretto and the orchestra sound was one of vigour and crispness, with a more distinct reading of the musical and dramatic phrases. Conductor: Leif Segerstamm; Dutchman: Franz Grundheber: Senta: Hildegard Behrens; Daland: Matti Salminen; Erik: Raimo Sirkiä; Mary: Anita Välkki Steersman: Jorma Silvasti.

This Dutchman is less dark and doomsday-like than the Bayreuth one and he feels more like the Dutchman described by Wagner in his stage instructions. The short aria of the Steersman appears lot more meaningful in the Savonlinna staging, giving the listener the pleasure of hearing the porcelain-clarity voice of this lovable Nordic tenor. The choreography has assisted the singers well in showing the greediness of Daland. A simple gesture of the Dutchman, who puts his lush overcoat over the Daland’s shoulders and  who gladly receives and keeps it, was a clever telling of Daland’s lust for material wealth.  The ghostly crew of the Dutchman’s ship is portrayed effectively in the waving arms through the sides of his ship. While in both productions the costume of the Dutchman has occupied considerable attention, Senta’s costume failed to bring up any feature of her character or to lead in any direction. As a Dutchman Mr. Grundheber was perhaps more suitable and better centred to show the weariness of a cursed man in his acting,  in accordance with Wagner’s stage instructions.

 A reader of this blog commented on the Canadian Opera Company’s upcoming production of The Flying Dutchman and gave a hint that it will be a less sombre and lighter version of Wagner’s music.

I invite you to join in listening such a lighter “Flying Dutchman” overture I found on YouTube. It is the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Alfred Scholz: