Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer (Helsinki, 2017)

Richard Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer

Finnish National Opera, Helsinki - 2017

John Fiore, Kasper Holten, Johan Reuter, Camilla Nylund, Gregory Frank, Mika Pohjonen, Sari Nordqvist, Tuomas Katajala

The Opera Platform - January 2017

Just for a second I had to think twice about which Wagner opera I was actually watching until the familiar overture - furiously played here in a way that made it unmistakable - reassured me. It isn't that Kasper Holten's concept for the Finnish National Opera production is anything outlandish, it's just that it opens on a scene that is almost exactly like Robert Carsen's Tannhäuser for the Paris Opera. Both show an artist furiously working on a painting while a model/lover reclines semi-naked on a mattress on the floor beside him. It's not the kind of familiar image you normally associate with the very distinctive setting of Der fliegende Holländer.

The role of the artist in society may be better suited to Tannhäuser, but those themes can also be applied with some validity to pretty much any Wagner opera, even if it sometimes seems a bit of a stretch. Kasper Holten's Helsinki production however is boldly resolute in presenting the opera in those terms and he doesn't have to ditch all the familiar sea legend imagery either, but subtly reworks it to support the central theme of the artist suffering for his art. It forces the viewer to reconsider the work in relation to the composer's use of mythology and indeed how it can be applied to Wagner's own mythologising of himself. The brilliant production values help make the point convincingly enough, but the musical values at Helsinki make this nothing less than a resounding success.

As the overture progresses, we already gain a vital grasp of the nature of The Dutchman as a suffering artist. It's not just one woman who is in his studio, but a never-ending succession of one beautiful model after another. The artist's curse, like the Dutchman's curse to endlessly wander the seas, is to never know rest in his duty to his art and to remain an outsider with no place to call home. Such is his dedication to his muse that he also risks never knowing true love. It's a lonely life, and even surrounded by admirers at Daland's art gallery, the Dutchman remains a solitary sorry figure. There's not a black mast, a red sail or storms in sight here, the only concession to the sea imagery being the agonised Abstract Expressionist blue-splash paintings that the Dutchman compulsively creates. It's all the "treasure" he has to offer the gallery owner in exchange for marrying his daughter.

You might be less inclined to buy into this concept were the musical delivery and performances not as good as they are here. Right from the outset, John Fiore leads the Finnish National Opera orchestra through a devastatingly powerful, dynamic and emotionally charged musical performance. In another context, the vocal delivery might appear to be a little over-emphatic, but it's a perfect fit here, with Gregory Frank's Daland, Johan Reuter's Dutchman and Tuomas Katajala's Steersman all intense, lyrical and forceful in delivery. What couldn't you do with a cast and performances like this, and it permits Holten the opportunity to explore more deeply the themes in this intriguing early work from Wagner when the composer was still trying to find his own voice.

Act II (after the interval in this three act version of the opera) extends the themes of art taken to obsession rather well, and is likewise boosted by an outstanding performance from Camilla Nylund. Senta and the sailor's wives are not spinning yarn here, but spinning pottery wheels and the phallic clay construction on Senta's plate shows where her distracted mind lies. To make it clear to the rest of her colleagues, she recounts her obsession with the great artist known as the Dutchman and her belief that she could be his redemption by creating her own painting and throwing herself down onto the splattered paint in a mixture of Abstract Expressionism and performance art. As sung by Nylund, it's quite a performance, the familiar attractive timbre of voice covering the range from entrancement to exultation and enrapture with every expression perfectly pitched.

It provides all the more reason why Senta and the Dutchman are immediately attracted to each other. As the Dutchman states, his first impression is that her "image" speaks to him and he can see a kindred soul in the painting she has made. Holten captures that sense of souls coming together well with a nice piece of stage trickery, using a handheld camera that Senta and the Dutchman share to record their direct perspective on the other person. Projecting it 'live' in the background, it's a brilliant device. Philipp Fürhofer's sets also do much to contribute to the natural fluidity of the piece, the large glass-panelled walls creating a cross-section of rooms on a rotating platform, with wilder projections of stormy sea abstractions enveloping the stage.

Act III still requires an imaginative response to present the crew of the ghost ship in Act III in terms of the concept of the artist. Holten comes up with... a nightmare. It might sound like a cop-out, but it fits perfectly with the nature of the Dutchman, seeing him assailed by doubts in the faceless figures of an uncomprehending society. If it works, again it's got much to do with the drive of the performances, but the choreography and dance movements all flow into that same swirl of emotions and artistic passions that were evident during the overture. Johan Reuter's charged performance as the Dutchman is key to holding this together so well, his deeply sensitive character subject to overwhelming emotions that surge like the tides of the sea and threaten to drown him.

Speaking of which, there have been many ways of depicting that final scene in Der fliegende Holländer and many ways of reading its message, but Kasper Holten's version is one of the best I've come across, having both meaning and impact. And impact perhaps just an important a factor that should not be underestimated as a means to deliver the 'message'. In a masterstroke bordering on exploitation, Senta turns the recordings that she and the Dutchman have made - images that capture his own death - into a piece of video art. If that is not striking enough, introducing further ambiguity on the nature of the artist to exploit their lives and loves for material, Camilla Nylund's delivery of the final ecstatic lines and her realisation of the personal price to be paid for great art is utterly devastating.

Broadcast on the Opera Platform in an all too brief viewing window, this is a truly great Der fliegende Holländer and essential viewing. If this is the standard they are accustomed to, it's a fine introduction to the quality of the work at the Finnish National Opera. It's also a reminder of how creative and insightful Kasper Holten can be in his grasp of what makes particular works great as well as in his ability to convey it clearly and inventively to an audience. I will be interested to see how Oliver Mears succeeds him at the Royal Opera House, but watching this and a number of his recent production, I can't help thinking that Holten's early departure has been an unfortunate loss to Covent Garden.

Links: Opera Platform, Finnish National Opera