Richard Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer
Opernhaus Zürich, 2013
Alain Altinoglu, Andreas Homoki, Anja Kampe, Liliana Nikiteanu, Bryn Terfel, Matti Salminen, Marco Jentzsch, Fabio Trümpy
Zürich - 3 July 2013
There's not a lot of traditional sea imagery in Andreas Homoki's 2013 production of Der fliegende Holländer for the Zurich Opera house, and more surprisingly there is little adherence even to the themes of Wagner's opera. The big themes are unavoidable in Wagner of course, which even in this earlier work explore mythology, suffering and endurance, and love and redemption meeting in death. If the work is strong enough to assert its own force in this production principally through a convincing musical performance, it does so then in spite of Homoki's setting, which not only fails to support the strengths of the work, it isn't even clear what exactly its intentions are in the first place.
Rather then than open out at sea, close to port, Act 1 of Homoki's production is set on dry land in the office of a 19th century shipping company. A map on the wall indicates that the company is expanding its operations into Africa under the strict control of its owner Daland, and there are other indications later on that colonialism comes into the equation here, but how exactly and what it's got to do with The Flying Dutchman never becomes entirely clear. Even though they are confined to an office then and all hailing and interaction is done through a telephone, there is some swaying around, which at least pays notional attention to the waves of the score if it doesn't make much sense in any other way.
The only real indication that there is any sea involved in the production comes in the second act. Senta's picture of the sea is retained for her account of the legend of the Flying Dutchman, but here it is a large picture on the wall of an office where the ladies are all secretaries working on typewriters rather than operating spinning wheels. The waves in the picture come to life, surging and swelling with the tides, and even show the black ship with red sails crossing it at one point, so the production is not entirely devoid of traditional imagery. When the Dutchman appears in each scene, it is effectively ghost-like, arriving on the stage as if out of thin air, emerging from a panel in the wall of the office, wearing a shaggy fur coat and a top hat with a feather in it.
There are some similarities then with Martin Kušej's Der fliegende Holländer for De Nederlandse which might provide some clues as to the intention of this setting, Kušej using the cruise terminal setting and Daland's materialistic concerns to draw class distinctions between itinerant asylum seekers or economic migrants and a consumerist western society. Homoki's colonial commentary comes into play mainly in the third act, and if it doesn't fit entirely convincingly, it is nonetheless thrillingly played out and performed. The role of the chorus consequently is important here, vocally as well as dramatically, and it all explodes in Act III as the women and men of the port invite the crew of the dead ashore. One of the black servants is transformed into a Zulu warrior, the enlarged map of Africa bursts into flames and the clerks are mowed down by arrows from the flaming fires behind the stage. Musically, vocally and dramatically it's a highly charged scene and spectacularly staged.
It's the attention to the musical detail then that assists the production considerably, Alain Altinoglu harnessing the orchestral forces of the Zurich opera house fluidly and powerfully through the revised version of the work without any breaks. It felt ever more a consistent piece here, without the usual lurches in style that can be found in Wagner's still not fully refined through-compositional approach. Mainly however the success of the production rested on the singing and in particular on Bryn Terfel's interpretation of the Dutchman. This was a much more nuanced and restrained Wagnerian interpretation than his Wotan for the Met opera, less deliberate in his enunciation and more nuanced in his acting performance, yet fully incarnating the role with dramatic purpose and clarity of diction even in the smallest of gestures and expressions.
The other roles were well cast and sung, if none quite at the level of Terfel's performance. Anja Kampe was pushed to the limit as Senta, but held up well, never faltering as she reached her moment of sacrifice by shooting herself with Erik's hunting rifle. If questions are often raised about how long Matti Salminen can continue to sing Wagner at this level, I certainly saw no weakness in his performance here, or at least there are still few who can match his ability to sing Daland or even Gurnemanz with such character and skill. Less stellar, but still delivering fine performances were Liliana Nikiteanu as Mary, Marco Jentzsch as Erik and Fabio Trümpy as the Steersman. Even though the staging was questionable, dramatically and musically this Der fliegende Holländer functioned according to true Wagnerian lines and often quite impressively.