Sunday 29 June 2014

Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer (Bayreuth 2013 - Blu-ray)

Richard Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer

Bayreuther Festspiele, 2013

Christian Thielemann, Jan Philipp Gloger, Franz-Josef Selig, Ricarda Merbeth, Tomislav Mužek, Christa Mayer, Benjamin Bruns, Samuel Youn

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

You never know quite what to expect from a new Bayreuth production other than the certainty that it won't be a "traditional" staging of a Wagner opera. Jan Philipp Gloger's concept for the 2012 production of Der Fliegende Holländer for example, is initially difficult to figure out, but there are a few things that stand in its favour that suggest that it at least holds true to the spirit and intention of the work. One is its adherence to the dramatic and mythological strengths of the work, the other is the quality of the performance itself, conducted by Christian Thielemann and sung well by a strong cast.

Taking it in terms of each of the three acts - although this performance uses the "joined-up" version of Der Fliegende Holländer without breaks or intermission - it's not immediately obvious what the setting or the intention is from the first act, and there's not much that appears consistent in the tone or the concept in the acts that follow either. Act I seems to suggest a futuristic setting, a data or information sea rather than a traditional water one. Dark walls are lined with connections, components and cables like a motherboard, lighting-up with the flashes of the storm, one that seems to derive directly from the ominous and unnoticed approach of the cyborg Dutchman's phantom ship.  

It may be dark and menacing, but the tone is inconsistent, the Steersman and Daland like a comedy double-act or at least showing some degree of levity in their actions and gestures. Conceptually, it doesn't seem to hold together, but arguably Wagner's technique doesn't hold together either in this earliest through-composed work which breaks into Donizetti melodies and Lortzing-influenced operetta duets. Act II seems similarly schizophrenic, the female chorus not a group of wives-a-weaving but workers in a factory packing fans into boxes. Among this group of sweetly singing industrious ladies, Senta comes across as a bit of an odd-ball - dark, gloomy and not a little deranged, crafting an abstract sculpture of the mythical Dutchman out of spare bits of wood, black tar and packing.

If you're a bit lost as to what is going on here you can at least enjoy the outstanding musical and singing performances, but things do start to fall into place in Act III (although it might help if you refer to the director's notes on the production in the accompanying booklet). Broadly speaking it's not that far removed from Martin Kušej's interpretation for the De Nederlandse in terms of how  the subject of Der Fliegende Holländer is viewed as a question of love versus commerce. The incompatibility and conflict between love and business is indeed a subject that plagued Wagner most of his life, so there's merit in this view, but whether it can be brought out meaningfully depends very much whether it also adheres to other important aspects of the composer's life and philosophy, particularly around this time.

According to Jan Philipp Gloger, the Dutchman's curse is to be ever in search of new markets and increasing his profits. Weary of the pace of modern life and cold practicality of business, he needs to find some peace and get back in touch with real human feelings. This is a credible reading of the work, but it needs to also take into consideration Wagner's belief in the romantic and ennobling power of myth, its importance enriching and expanding the horizons of the individual and its collective purpose as something that defines a nation and its people. Golger's production actually does this, converting Senta into a makeshift angel, her actions inspiring her co-workers to recognise her human sacrifice in a commemorative object d'art.

That sounds belittling of Wagner's mythology, but it actually brings it back to human terms without losing any of the grandeur of the work. That's all there in the music - to which careful and respectful attention is paid here - and in the singing performances. Christian Thielemann's conducting of the Bayreuth orchestra might perhaps be a little unadventurous, but it's perfectly attuned to the dramatic performance and the singing. Unshowy, it's sensitive to the intricacies of the score, muscular where required, light and lyrical in other places with a true romantic sweep and dramatic drive. It's wonderful to hear, but even more impressive in how it connects with all the points of the dramatic staging.

The efforts of director and conductor could still all fall apart if the production didn't also have sympathetic singing performances and, fortunately, the singing here is very strong in all the roles. Ricarda Merbeth in particular is outstanding as Senta. It's is a difficult role, not just for the singing requirements, but in how one chooses to define and balance Senta's dreamy, deranged and romantic nature. Merbeth not only meets all the technical requirements, she delivers it with ringing lyricism that captures the magical as well as the all too human nature of her character. She's at her best in the critical Act II scene with the Dutchman which has to make this unlikely couple seem credible and she and Samuel Youn do indeed 'click' and work together wonderfully.

You can't fault the casting in the other roles here either, with Franz-Josef Selig a solid Daland and Benjamin Bruns a bright, golden-voiced Steersman. The choral work - a vital element of Der Fliegende Holländer - is also outstanding, the male choruses purposeful and driven, the female chorus delicate and lyrical. The production design for this 2013 recording incidentally seems to have been reworked slightly from it 2012 presentation from what I can see from production photographs. Senta is dressed in black throughout here rather than red, the blood red imagery replaced elsewhere with black tar-like drips. The model sailing ship is gone in Senta's ballad, replaced with her obsessing over the abstract sculpture she has created.

On Blu-ray, the 2013 Bayreuther Festspiele production of Der Fliegende Holländer looks tremendous, even with all the dark backgrounds and high contrast lighting. The audio tracks are both strong, the DTS Master HD-Audio 5.1 giving a good surround ambience while the PCM track is more focussed and direct. Extras consist of short interviews with Benjamin Bruns, chorus master Eberhard Friedrich, director Jan Philipp Gloger and a slightly longer entertaining interview with Christian Thielemann being amiably(?) spiky and contrary, clearly knowing his own mind with respects to Wagner and this work. The disc is region-free, subtitles are in English, French, German and Korean.