Friday, 16 June 2017

Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer (Caen, 2015)

Richard Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer

Théâtre de Caen, 2015

François-Xavier Roth, Alexander Schulin, Alfred Walker, Ingela Brimberg, Marcel Reijans, Maximilian Schmitt, Liang Li, Kismara Pëssati 

Culturebox - May 2017

It's not popular with a lot of people, but there can be good reasons for not staging an opera in realistic sets that are representative of the original setting. It doesn't have to be a deconstructive or post-modern analysis of the work either, sometimes it can be enough to merely place the work in a more abstract space where mood can be just as instructive to the piece as narrative. There's already narrative aplenty in Der fliegende Holländer, most of it related in long monologues by the principal characters, but there's a great deal of other characteristics in Wagner's opera that you can work with to great effect. The 2015 production at the Théâtre de Caen offers one such way of looking at it afresh.

Alexander Schulin's direction and Bettina Meyer's sets for the Théâtre de Caen's Der fliegende Holländer liberates what is after all a fairytale legend from its earth-bound, sea-rolling imagery in order to get closer to the Romantic heart of the tale. It might not follow the letter of the libretto in every respect, but alongside François-Xavier Roth's conducting of the Orchestre Les Siècles, there is an attempt here to capture something more important about the essence of dreams and desires, or dream-fuelled desires. Not deconstructive or psychoanalytical, this production unashamedly aims straight for the Romantic impulse at the heart of the work.

And it doesn't have to be suicidal about it either at the conclusion, because the implication seems to be that Senta is already dead at the start. We seem to be in the mind of the dead woman as Act I takes place in an abstract boxed-in space with geometric blocks topped with bands for light and projection. During the stormy overture, we do indeed see images of the drowned woman in the midst of the more familiar images of a raging sea and sky. A reanimated Senta calls the sailors to her command to be buffeted, spinning and whirling by the winds and rain of the coming storm. She also cradles a rather creepy gargoyle-like arm puppet of the Dutchman, whose lips can be made to move.

When the apparition of the Dutchman himself takes the stage, wonderfully atmospheric, dragging what looks like an oil slick behind him, it takes on another quality altogether with Senta is there on the stage with him, her romantic desires made real. Here, the Dutchman, intoning the nature of his entrapment, can be seen to have more of a Jokanaan-like quality to Senta's Salome-like obsessive and taboo desire. Senta is also there to direct negotiations between Donald (as Daland is known in the 1842 Paris version performed here) and the Dutchman, and immediately - in a way that might otherwise be lost - we gain a deeper insight into Senta's desires, and indeed the nature of desires, than we normally would from her first singing appearance in Act II alone.

The performance of the three-act Paris version of Der fliegende Holländer in a single flowing sequence plays well with this abstract dream quality, and permits some free-association of images that don't tie the work down in harsh reality. The sailors wives then might look like they are spinning the wheels of their sewing machines, but looking closer it looks more like they each are working with a screw-down vice. Darned (ho-halla-ho!) if I know what that means, but nothing feels distracting, the work flowing along according to its own dream-death logic. Senta's (dead) presence here, with her strange obsessions, her grotesque doll and ghost story feels just as out of time and place as it did in the first Act.

The abstract dream quality and the underlying desire that fuels it is supported wholeheartedly by the music and singing performances. Every one of the main roles impresses. Right from the outset the ringing clarity of Maximilian Schmitt's Helmsman and the soft resonance of Liang Li's wonderfully mercenary Donald have the presence to draw us into the haunting beauty of the compelling set-up for this production. Alfred Walker's Dutchman carries every ounce of the kind of dangerous charisma that has captivated Senta, his bass-baritone rich and dark, booming menace and anger that switches to a handsome romantic lyricism in Act II. The sincerity in Marcel Reijans' singing and characterisation of Georg (otherwise known as Erik) however makes him a worthy and sympathetic rival for Senta's hand.

This Senta however is completely in the thrall of the legend of the Dutchman, and the extent of that High Romantic obsession is very well brought out by the fact of her having already sacrificed herself to it before this production even begins. It's also fully characterised in this deeply romantic death-wish aspect by the performance of Ingela Brimberg. If that means that Senta doesn't meet the end that is usually reserved for her in the final moments of the opera, her final high notes nonetheless achieve exactly the same impact and bring to a climax the feverish mood that has been established in the previous three acts.

As good as the singing is, the nature of the mood is best captured by the musical performance of the Orchestre Les Siècles conducted by François-Xavier Roth. With perhaps not as big an orchestra that you usually find for Der fliegende Holländer, the character and detail of the playing was beautifully evident with a feeling for the mood that matched the production. There is more of a Classical feel to the performance that makes the work's influences and the spirit of Beethoven in it more apparent. There is also a wonderful consistency to the tone, with Donald and the Dutchman's duet in Act I not sticking out like a sore thumb as it often can, but feeling more of a piece with the work as a whole, permitting the production to also flow beautifully for all the inconsistencies introduced by its death-dream-logic setting.

Links: Culturebox, Théâtre de Caen