Richard Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer (Bayreuth, 2021)
Bayreuther Festspiele, 2021
Oksana Lyniv, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Georg Zeppenfeld, Asmik Grigorian, Eric Cutler, Marina Prudenskaya, Attilio Glaser, John Lundgren
BR-Klassik streaming - 25th July 2021
Is it possible to basically undermine the original spirit and intention of a work and yet somehow get closer to a more universal truth? All great art is alive and constantly open to interpretation and speaks to each of us differently, and certainly in the world of modern productions of opera, that idea is often tested to the limit. Dmitri Tcherniakov certainly applies such standards, but so too do the current administration at Bayreuth. As bizarre as some of the spins are put on productions of his work however, Wagner only seems to come out the stronger for it. I'm not saying that Tcherniakov and Bayreuth brings any great new vision to this new 2021 production of Der fliegende Holländer, but Wagner's early working of his ideas for myth and opera certainly don't suffer from the experience of being brought a little more down to earth.
On the surface Tcherniakov's reworking of legend into reality is perhaps not as radical as his take on Der Freischütz at Munich earlier this year, but there is one major spin spelled out during the Vorspiel that does change the complexion of Der fliegende Holländer considerably. It becomes not a tale of tragic, romantic love and exile as a story of revenge, and perhaps madness. All myths of course have some basis in reality and the stories a human emotional dimension, so as presumptuous and misguided as it might seem, Tcherniakov elaborates a rationale for the Dutchman's fate.
During the Vorspiel we see the Dutchman as a child, witnessing and suffering the trauma of seeing his mother involved in an affair with a married man, subsequently ostracised from society and ending up taking her own life. The married man was Daland and, now an older man, Holländer comes back to the town to wreak his revenge on Daland by taking his daughter. It's not enough to just buy her, being far too easy to dazzle the avaricious man with money and jewels, but he needs to win and destroy the heart of his daughter in order to be satisfied that he has avenged his mother. The romantic myth of the Dutchman - which he himself elaborates to Daland's crew in Act I - is just a means to achieve that objective through the power of the story, the myth. So as a concept, it's not entirely detached from Wagner's own ideals and self-promotion.
One other fundamental difference that the director brings to his production of Der fliegende Holländer is that the sea does not feature at all. Nor ships and not even ports really. The opening scene seems to be a lads night out at the bar, taking advantage of the bad weather as an excuse to stay out drinking all night. The odd man at the other end of the bar however looks like trouble. The complete absence of the sea in this opera must be a first, and again it seems something of a deliberate pose. Since it's not really all that relevant to the underlying idea of the work - as much as the sea could be said to feature prominently in the music - the same story could be true of any small town where prejudice against strangers and foreigners exist, where small mindedness holds sway and refuses to recognise greatness, genius and originality. Again, not a million miles away from deeper themes that are consistent through Wagner's work.
In order to bring this tale to a suitable conclusion - one that doesn't rely on any high-flown romantic scenes of supernatural legend and mythology, Tcherniakov employs Mary to greater use than usual, casting her also as the mother of Senta. Although that means it's mostly a silent role outside of her traditional part as the leader of the spinning ladies in Act II, as Daland's apparently long-suffering wife, now witnessing his selling off of their daughter to a stranger, she ends the horror in a dramatic fashion at the conclusion of the opera. Senta's madness and delusion, brought about with what should have been a cautionary tale, comes crashing down to a state of shock as she understands what her mother has gone though.
If you haven't heard of Asmik Grigorian - and really there have been plenty of online and DVD opportunities in major productions to see what she can do - you will certainly hear more of that name after this production. She gives a phenomenal performance as Senta. Her reach and technical ability is outstanding, throwing herself physically into the role and soaring to those great heights of emotional outpouring. Her acting might be a bit overstated for some, but perhaps not, as Senta is by no means a rational person and is driven some kind of madness. Tcherniakov doesn't give her a background as he does the Dutchman, and it might have helped to understand more of her unhappy dysfunctional family background, but that is certainly hinted at, even in Wagner's depiction of Daland willing to sell her to a stranger, and in her unequal relationship with Erik.
Grigorian is undoubtedly the star of the night, but this is by no means a production that rides on one exceptional performance; the other singing performances are of an equally very high standard. Georg Zeppenfeld is as reliable as ever, currently untouchable in almost every Wagner bass role (and seems to be playing every Wagner bass role at Bayreuth). John Lundgren is superb as the dark, dangerous and menacing Dutchman with a real reason to bemoan and seek release from his fate. Eric Cutler is an Erik who makes a real impression and Marina Prudenskaya makes the most of the extended role for Mary.
There's no doubt however who the Bayreuth audience see as the hero and villain of this production and they make their feelings known quite loudly. Grigorian is subjected to a roar of approval, deservedly bringing the house down. The first female conductor at Bayreuth, Oksana Lyniv also met with widespread approval and it is indeed a fiery muscular performance of interval-less run-through version of the opera. Inevitably Tcherniakov divides the audience, accepts that many in the audience will not like what he does, but there is also cheering from those who appreciate his work here. If the production is alive and elicits such a reaction it has surely done something right, even if it doesn't align with preconceived ideas of what Holländer "ought" to be. Once again however, Wagner - even early Wagner - comes out the stronger for it, and isn't that how it ought to be?