De Nederlandse Opera, 2010
Hartmut Haenchen, Martin Kušej, Robert Lloyd, Catherine Naglestad, Marco Jentzsch, Marina Prudenskaja, Oliver Ringelhahn, Juha Uusitalo
If you like your Wagner staged in the traditional manner, then this production won’t be for you. If however you think that the themes in Wagner’s work – fatalistic romantic destinies, love, duty, power, suffering, the conflict between tradition and modernity – have a timeless quality and can resonate with its subject no matter what the setting, then you might be inclined to at least understand why a producer might want to relate those themes in a way that is relevant to a modern audience. The question with the De Nederlandse Opera production of Der fliegende Holländer however is whether they take it too far and perhaps take too many liberties with the opera.
Der fliegende Holländer however, is not a late Wagner work, the composition not conforming precisely to the musical standards that the composer would later set, nor indeed in the very specific manner in which it should be presented. Written around the same time as Rienzi, Der fliegende Holländer certainly points towards that direction and is a fascinating opera to examine the beginning of Wagner’s progression, but it is still curiously imbalanced between the newer style and the influences of old, more conventional Italianate opera practices, and the switch between them can be quite jarring in parts of the opera. Since we can’t go back however and consider the opera and its relevance afresh through the eyes of a 19th century audience – and since even Wagner used mythology to speak to a contemporary audience of modern ideas for a Germanic art and principles – we have no choice but to consider the opera from a modern perspective in any case.
Director Martin Kušej takes advantage of the somewhat schizophrenic split in the opera itself between tradition and modernity in order to present it meaningfully to a modern-day Dutch audience. There are no longer sailing ships sailing the seven seas for years at a time - ship navigation, seafaring and commerce are all very different now, so if you think about it in modern terms, it shouldn’t really be surprising to see shipping in terms of cruises and ferries, the Dutchman here arriving on a Norwegian ferry, his crew asylum seekers, looking for a homeland, a place to settle after a lifetime of being tossed around as refugees on the seas of conflict and revolution. It shouldn’t be difficult either to consider the arrival of these figures being perceived as a threat to those who enjoy a comfortable western bourgeois lifestyle.
Whether those multicultural subjects have any place in a Wagner opera is for the opera lover to consider (or not, should such interpretations not hold any interest for traditionalists), but it strikes me as a valid response to the themes of Der fliegende Holländer, and – most importantly – it’s presented here in a manner that doesn’t undermine or lessen the importance of the other eternal themes in the opera and the subjects that held meaning for Richard Wagner, namely the loss of one’s homeland, a consideration of what is a sense of homeland, and all the associated themes that go alongside it where love, family, stability and security count for more than richness and social climbing in a globalised society where money talks. Those subjects are treated with utmost reverence in this production, and the reason why they can be given a modern spin is because the opera is so powerful in its expression of them, tying them deeply into a mythology that does indeed hold mystique and attraction in the legend of the Flying Dutchman, but also in the use of the sea itself – a powerful symbol in any guise, but even more so here in the musical expression and embryonic use of leitmotif that Wagner employs so evocatively.
While I feel that the opera’s themes are done justice to in this production then – but I can quite understand why it might not work for everyone – what is just as important and ultimately persuasive here is the performance of the opera itself. Quite simply it is sung and played magnificently and comes across particularly well in the stunning sound reproduction that is presented on the Blu-ray edition. Not only are the voices of Juha Uusitalo and Catherine Naglestad superb in their range, control and power, but they blend together most marvellously as a singers and as the couple of the Dutchman and Senta. This is totally a 5-star production in terms of performance and singing alone (as well as for the quality of the Blu-ray) – but it is also a sincere, interesting and fascinating attempt to relate the opera to modern themes. If the concept is perhaps a slightly imperfect fit, or slightly inconsistent with the original intentions of the opera, Der fliegende Holländer was always an imperfect opera in the first place – but, like this production, no less fascinating for those perceived flaws and inconsistencies.