Richard Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer
Theater an der Wien, 2015
Marc Minkowski, Olivier Py, Samuel Youn, Ingela Brimberg, Lars Woldt, Bernard Richter, Manuel Günther, Ann-Beth Solvang
Sonostream TV - 24 November 2015
The enduring legacy of Wagner's operas, even as musical fashions and tastes have long moved on, has much to do with his sense of theatre. It's this underrated aspect of the composer's work that can first be seen developing into something greater in Der fliegende Holländer, the composer aligning a sense of theatricality to a subject of mythological drama in a way that would inspire his own distinctive musical ideas and themes. If the language and subject of Der fliegende Holländer is perhaps not convincing on its own terms to a modern audience and its message is by no means a profound or nuanced one, its dramatic and musical-drama strengths are such that the work can still touch upon something deeper.
Olivier Py's opera productions have their problems, and taking liberties with the intent of the work can be one of them, but as an actor himself and theatre director (as well as currently being the artistic director and programmer of the prestigious Avignon drama festival) there is no question that he has a strong sense of theatre. Py has also developed his own theatrical language and signature in the opera house over recent years, most inspired when dealing with questions of good and evil, light and dark, sacrifice and redemption. His productions have consequently been more successful when applied to works like Hamlet, Dialogues des Carmélites and Ariane et Barbe-bleu, and less so when trying to shoehorn them into something like Aida.
There's no question then that Der fliegende Holländer fits very well with this vision, but just in case you are in any doubt, Senta walks across the stage early during the overture of this Theater an der Wien production and writes 'Erlösung' (Redemption) on the black boards of the set's representation of the Dutchman's ship. Pierre-André Weitz's set design is familiar from the tone that Py has established in those aforementioned works with similar themes. It's dark and imposing. The black panels not only represent the Dutchman's ship, but also the walls of the house where Senta and Donald live. The rotating set however offers up many more possibilities and configurations, as well as symbolically marking a dividing line between interior worlds and the outside world.
There's a lot of interiority in Der fliegende Holländer, and Py manages to represent it well in this production through the set, but also with simple effective devices that don't stretch the indulgence of the audience. In Act I for example, Py handles the long monologues in archaic verse well by not having the performers stand alone on the stage singing to themselves. When the Steersman sings to his love from his lonely lookout, you actually see her silently walk up and embrace him. Likewise when the Dutchman laments the fate that condemns him to eternally sail the high seas, he sings it to a dancer who prowls dramatically alongside him on the stage. Py indulges in the theatricality a little by having the dancer cover his face and shoulders in black make-up on the stage during the overture, the dressing room mirror remaining there throughout.
In terms of visualising the force of evil, or even Satan, that the captain struggles with, it's highly effective and doesn't come to dominate the proceedings the way dancing stage doubles often do. Likewise, while Py characteristically brings full-frontal nudity (male and female) into the production, it's to illustrate and bring out the underlying passions that exist in the work. A naked double for Senta lies stretched out on a bed and appears vulnerable while the Dutchman and her father, Duncan (as he is called in this version of the work), barter the terms of his stay at their house with the hand of his daughter thrown in for good measure. The stage and the characterisation elsewhere is filled with little details like that. It's partly updated to the 1940s - for no discernible reason I can see other than it looks very smart for the costume design - but the locations are more symbolic than literal.
Act II consequently abandons any idea of the wives being seamstresses spinning, Mary rather directing them in a choir practice, since what they are really doing is indeed singing. With Senta's recounting of the legend and her first meeting of the Dutchman, all of the elements seeded throughout come together, the stage rotating faster, drawing together their worlds; a much more expansive world than the small house in a boxed in space that Erik/Georg hopes to share with Senta. Symbolism however - a field of black crosses, a huge skull - indicates that the scope of Senta's life with the Dutchman is one determined by its fatalistic nature. She has effectively entered into a death pact.
Py's theatrical interpretation of Wagner's musical-drama is only part of the equation. The singing has a large role in determining whether these ideas (Wagner's and Py's) work on the stage. The principal roles in the Theatre an der Wien's 2015 production are all superb. Samuel Youn is a Bayreuth regular and his characterisation in performance just seems to deepen and gain greater authority. Ingela Brimberg impressively channels all the passion of Senta in a bright timbre with secure delivery. She initially seems more tormented than romantic, but her first scene with the Dutchman shows that she is capable of a softer touch that loses none of its force. Lars Woldt is a superb Donald and Bernard Richter a much more sympathetic and sweetly toned Georg/Erik than is usually the case. Even Manuel Günther's Steersman and Ann-Beth Solvang's Mary are impressive here.
As some of the perhaps confusing references indicate, conductor Marc Minkowski is working with the earliest version of Der fliegende Holländer with its original Scottish setting, with Daland named Duncan and Erik as Georg. Not that this makes any discernible difference as far as Py's non-Scottish specific setting is concerned, nor in how Minkowski directs the now common joined-up, no-interval version of the work. It's not the kind of opera that I would associate Minkowski with, but there's no question that you get the full impact of Wagner here, the music raging and stormy, moody and dark, lyrical and highly Romantic with all the temperament of a changeable sea.
Py and Minkowski's efforts here all play to the strengths of Der fliegende Holländer, not against it, expanding on the characterisation perhaps, but only in a way that tries to get at an essential truth. Whether the Romanticism of the work means anything in an age when the currency of legends and mythology is much devalued, where love and sacrifice are less common, the truth and the beauty of Wagner's vision still comes through in its glorious theatricality.
Links: Sonostream, Theater an der Wien