Wagner, Der Fliegende Holländer

I decided to take a risk and snag a ticket for opening night of a new production of Wagner‘s Flying Dutchman in the Volksoper.  The Volksoper, which excels in lighter Viennese fare and non-standard period pieces, does not always quite rise to the larger operatic repertory; furthermore, tonight’s opera director was German (which flashes warning signs) and conductor French (if not a warning, then at least a flag for Wagner).  But I looked at the Volksoper’s preview materials on line and decided it was worth the chance – and it certainly was.

The director, Aron Stiehl, did not provide a standard staging, but he did read the book and make an intelligent interpretation (something his countrymen should also really try doing sometime).  The Volksoper stage is not large, so any staging would require some amount of suggestion rather than realism.  The first thing he dispensed with, therefore, were the ships – making them more an allusion.  With those out of the way, the remainder of the props were not quite minimal but suggestive of something – and hence his interpretation: the Flying Dutchman as a psychological drama.  Costumes were nondescript and of no particular period, so we did not focus on those, and unlike his German colleagues he did not see the need to shock us.  Indeed, by minimizing the distractions, without being minimalist, we focused more on the words and the acting, so that was a win.

I actually had not thought too much before about comedic aspects of the words, but here, for example, Stiehl made fun of the Steersman (as did the rest of the cast) as a somewhat inept buffoon (not just someone who falls asleep at the watch), although one wonders how he got the job if he were really that incompetent.  The strangest deviation was to avoid having spinning wheels completely, instead making women in the second act part of a choral group practicing under the direction of Mary.  The portrait of the Dutchman on the wall was again alluded to but never shown (it would have been hanging on the non-existent wall where the orchestra pit was), and instead the room was filled with paintings of the sea.  I’m not sure that worked.

On the other hand, the Dutchman’s anguish as to his fate was palpable.  He has given up: this will be his final stop, and if it doesn’t work, he will accept death and eternal damnation.  In the final act, Stiehl had him walk in on the conversation between Senta and Erik earlier than where it normally happens.  In the plot, he normally walks in just as Erik is urging Senta to be faithful (meaning to Erik) and not having heard the context misinterprets that as Erik urging Senta to be faithful to her pledge to the Dutchman, after which the Dutchman announces himself, sets sail without Senta, and Senta seeing the misunderstanding throws herself off a cliff into the sea.  In Stiehl’s reading, by arriving early enough to hear the context, the Dutchman understands that Senta is just a child with an obsession, and the best course of action is not to take advantage of her but instead to leave her in Erik’s protection (as she had been) and to leave to his own fate.  Thus in this staging Senta never actually does throw herself into the sea: the opera ends with her walking towards the illuminated waves, but the ending is intentionally ambiguous.  Maybe she will throw herself in to redeem the Dutchman (as the music tells), but on the other hand it all may have been a dream.

To pull this all off required great performers.  The cast was tremendous, headed by Markus Marquardt as the Dutchman, who went through the whole range of emotions and psychological twists Stiehl had devised, with a powerful and expressive voice.  As Daland, Stefan Czerny had a twinkle in his eye, even as (when getting right down to the text) he is essentially selling his own beloved daughter to the highest bidder, which would make him a bit one-dimensional even if so much not in Czerny’s characterful reading.  Meagan Miller, as Senta, also managed to make her character more than just a one-dimensional lovesick teen, although her voice warbled a bit.  Tomislav Mužek, with a pleasant and large tenor, made a forceful Erik, not the landlubber wimp he often comes across as in this sea-based drama.

The orchestra played with both brilliance and nuance.  Conductor Marc Piollet got it.  The sound from the pit was large, but despite that never overwhelmed the singers.  Indeed, the orchestra was itself practically a character in the plot.  Since so much of the staging was allusion, and many of the alluded-to objects (from the Dutchman’s ship to the portrait on the wall) would have been located where the orchestra pit was (based on where the characters were pointing to refer to things), it meant that the descriptive music had to have an even bigger role.  That it did.  And the orchestra had to keep the drama moving, which meant with forward-driving but also tweaking the emphasis (some of which Wagner wrote intentionally off-beat to make the opera feel more uneasy), and so required a full understanding of its role in this production.  In that it fully succeeded under Piollet’s direction.

Glad I decided to take the risk!

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