Tagged: Der Fliegende Hollander

The COC’s Holländer: How Does it Compare?

Only three weeks after seeing Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer at the Metropolitan Opera, I have just returned from the Canadian Opera Company’s take on the same. And I must say that even without A-lister Deborah Voigt, I much preferred the COC’s quirky, at times frustrating, modernist approach.

Christopher Alden’s production, though “avant-garde”, dates from 1996 (in 1996 I was in Jr. High, obsessed with Gene Kelly, and still hadn’t seen my first “real” opera – now I’m pushing 30). Its central conceit is in setting the opera in a nightmarish, expressionist version of 1930′s Germany, with the Dutchman and his crew in striped prison garb and the armband-wearing chorus moving as a mechanized, hyper-conforming mass. Considering the fascist taint that Wagner’s work has carried since the Nazi era, this is not just a thought experiment but a deeply provocative attempt to interrogate the opera’s subtext. There’s no question that the society we see in Holländer is a rigid and labour-centred one, where the Dutchman (the outcast) and Senta (the rebel) serve to make the other characters seem soulless, superficial and reactionary. The best illustrations of this came during the spinning song, where the chorus of women, seated in rows, performed mechanical movements in perfect unison; and the dueling choruses in Scene III, where the Dutchman’s shadowy crew is imprisoned under the stage while the men above stomp their feet. A thoughtful account of the original 1996 production – and the problems inherent in using Nazi images for theatrical ends – can be found on the COC’s website. I didn’t find it too crass or needlessly disrespectful, especially considering that these issues are impossible to avoid in productions of Wagner.

And, as a coda to my disappointment with the Tosca Leap that ended the Met’s production, I’ll say (without spoilers) that Alden’s alternate ending is so effective and so appropriate that I found myself wondering why Wagner didn’t write it that way himself.

Performances were top-flight all around, especially Evgeny Nikitin as the Dutchman. His voice is clear and forceful, never woolly or growly, sounding almost like a tenor in the higher range and robust in the lower. He also had a wonderful physicality in the role, playing a broken man rather than a romantic hero. In the pit, new Artistic Director Johannes Debus conducted with insight and color. I can’t find fault with this production musically, although there were a few strains and glitches here and there.

My major frustration was in certain elements of the staging. The set is an enormous box tilted on an angle, with a spiral staircase leading up through the “ceiling”. Because my seats are in the highest balcony, the very top of the staircase was obstructed from my view – and it was from this staircase that a lot of key lines were delivered. The acoustics suffered as much as the sightlines, and this really took away from my enjoyment of these scenes, especially considering that placing the singers a few more steps down would have solved the issue. The Met’s staging had exactly this problem, except this time I was in standing room. The Dutchman entered from a giant ladder that reached up to the ceiling, and Die Frist ist Um was sung almost entirely from the uppermost portion – which I couldn’t see at all, save for a shoe and part of a cloak, due to the balcony overhang. Considering that, again, this could have been solved by having him come down the ladder a little further, I have to wonder whether the directors don’t think about how their stagings will look to people in the cheap seats, or whether they just don’t care (since, after all, I only paid $30 for my seat and it looks just fine for the people who paid $300). Last fall’s The Nightingale was a huge offender in this regard, so much that it almost completely destroyed my enjoyment of the work. Does anyone have any thoughts on why this happens, especially when it’s not caused by any structural issues with the seat? I expect visibility problems on the sidelines, but not when I’m dead-centre in the balcony.

Other reviews:

National Post: “None of this is really worth the exegesis. The music is what counts. Best to take in one of the repeats as an opera in concert.”

Toronto Star: “Had everyone simply stood onstage, the experience would have been more satisfying than seeing director Christopher Alden turn the Dutchman into a B-movie zombie who stumbles and staggers as he searches for the next wall to bang into.”

NOW Magazine: “The Canadian Opera Company’s revival of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman is one of the most exciting productions in town”

Epoch Times: “The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman was like going to see a Leaf’s game and watching them lose—a familiar feeling for Toronto hockey fans. You love the sport, you want to be there and have it all work and it just doesn’t.”

John Coulbourn: “And so it all ends in a bit of an artistic draw, for while , finally, THE FLYING DUTCHMAN impresses on many levels, it only ever really soars on the wings of its music.”

Classical 963 FM:”Despite the craziness on stage, the drama of Wagner’s thrilling score shines throughout. Kudos to maestro Debus and his orchestra and singers.”

Mooney on Theatre: “The Canadian Opera Company’s (COC’s) production of Richard Wagner’s famous opera The Flying Dutchman, now playing at The Four Seasons Centre For The Performing Arts, is very beautiful and certainly well worth seeing.”

Other Opinions of Holländer

Though Heather and I enjoyed Friday night’s performance of Der fliegende Holländer at the Met, the other critics (at least, the two I could find) were not terribly enamoured. Here are some other reviews:

The New York Times: “…except for the singing of Deborah Voigt, who brought steely power and lyrical elegance to her first Met Senta, the performance lacked intensity, focus and Wagnerian vocal splendor.”

Superconductor: “Mr. Uusitalo is a tall, handsome singer with a strong stage presence. However, Friday night’s performance was somewhat anemic.”

Heather and Cecily review Der fliegende Holländer!

On Friday evening, ATC’s New York correspondent and I enjoyed opening night of the Met’s Der fliegende Holländer, starring Deborah Voigt. We’ve decided to review it jointly, as a back-and-forth dialogue between us. Neither of us had seen Hollander before, and we loved talking about it as a work as well as about this specific performance.

CECILY: One thing that struck me is how much Senta at the beginning of the opera acts like a modern-day Twilight fan. She’s obsessed with the Dutchman’s portrait, likes to hear his story over and over again, is kinda turned on by his supernatural dark broodiness, and has fantasies of “rescuing” him from his dark fate. She’s an interesting character, isn’t she? Chaste but quivering.

HEATHER:  She is interesting for sure. I love when she sings about the legend of the Dutchman to the chorus of woman. The song is so strongly voiced…but then she swoons at the end. She is a contradiction! And *sort* of chaste.  Though it is Wagner, there was a bit of humour in the suggestion of her sexual fascination with the Dutchman. Musically, he is far sexier than her suitor Erik. His arias are blandly traditional rather than the stormily Romantic music of the Dutchman.

CECILY: You can really hear foretastes of the Ring Cycle in the Dutchman’s music, although not the sexy parts. The Dutchman was clad a bit like a Byronic hero in this particular production.

HEATHER: The Dutchman was definitely Byronic. I’m glad the Dutchman looked more like Heathcliff than Dracula. He was pretty pale though. I thought the supernatural element was done well–present, but not excessive.  I like the scene with the chorus–who are trying to persuade the sailors to party with them–and the ghostly crew of the Flying Dutchman. There was quite the visual and musical contrast between the ordinary and the unworldly in this exchange.

CECILY: Yes, the dueling choruses were a highlight for me, and it was a very visually effective (though our view was obstructed a bit from standing room). Did you find that Senta’s death moment was fluffed a bit, visually? These days I’m starting to think that after over a century of leaping Toscas, we’d be interested in something a bit more interesting than just “the jump”.

HEATHER: Fluffed up how? I agree that leaping to one’s death seems derivative (so why bother emphasizing it on stage). Tosca will always do it better! (i.e. in Italian). In some way I didn’t quite expect Senta to do it though. She’s totally obsessed with the Dutchman, but I think a tiny possibility was presented that she would choose the more staid Erik. His songs were nice.

CECILY: Mostly I was just wondering if there’s a better way to execute the final jump than the Climb To Precipice/Make Emotional Appeal/Carefully Jump Behind Set drill – something a bit more unexpected. And it’s interesting that Senta is sort of stringing Erik along – trying hard to placate him and not quite admitting, in her first scene, that she’d leave him for the Dutchman.

HEATHER: You’re right. It was kind of a boring way to do it. Not my favourite demise of a heroine either. Nothing will ever beat Adriana Lecouvreur’s death; she keeled over after sniffing poisoned violets. I think you’re right about Senta’s treatment of Erik. She is a bit conflicted there. She’s pretty set on the Dutchman though (and from first glance) What did you think of that first scene between the Dutchman and Senta?

CECILY: I like the tension in that scene – the long, long interval where no words are exchanged. Not a lot of composers would have had the guts to attempt something like that. And in this production, the lack of motion carried on for an almost agonizingly long length of time. I’d be interested to see if, in other productions, Senta and the Dutchman ever move toward each other or touch, or if they usually take the “stillness” approach.

HEATHER: A brave move indeed. Silence can be profound or awkward. I didn’t hear any giggles though. It was an arresting moment. Their lack of contact (and extended silence) seemed to suggest containment–they are each still profoundly wrapped up in the idea rather than the reality of their beloved. It is the opposite of the Erik/Senta dynamic, which is much more familiar. I generally prefer higher male voices, but I was really taken with Juha Uusital. I’ve rarely enjoyed a bass-baritone so much.

CECILY: Yes, both Uusital and Voigt were marvelous. There’s an interesting brightness in Voigt’s voice that I like – it allows her to be both powerful and girlish when the music requires it. All in all, an excellent first experience with the Dutchman – I’m looking forward to comparing this one to the COC’s version coming up this May!

NYC Opera Vacation – Deborah’s Dutchman

If all goes well, tomorrow night I’ll be attending the opening of the Metropolitan Opera’s Der Fliegende Holländer, in New York, starring the renowned Deborah Voigt as Senta. This is a bit of a consolation prize for my aborted trip to Berlin. A million things could go wrong between now and then (including most likely not being able to get tickets) but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. It will be interesting to compare this production to the COC’s upcoming take, which I have only heard described as “weird”.

Opera 101: The Pie-Eating Contest

I just returned from the COC’s free Opera 101 event (for Der fliegende Holländer) at the Drake Hotel. There was a very interesting discussion on “interpretive/modern” productions of operas, whether opera is relevant in today’s world or whether it is a museum piece, and how to manage the unpleasant associations that are unfortunately part of Wagner’s legacy. Christopher Alden, the director of the upcoming Holländer, explained how in this (admittedly 14 year old) production he conceived of Senta as someone who, while part of the dominant social order, is obsessed with the plight of the other, the outsider, the oppressed. This seems to me to be a more interesting take than seeing her as someone wishing to be carried away by a sexy fairy-tale pirate, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this is expressed on stage. I’m also pretty sure I agree with Alden when he says that opera, while relevant, is an art form of the past (and I think that the sooner we admit this, the better).

He also related an anecdote about a production of Aida he directed in Berlin, roundly booed by the audience, wherein the triumphal procession was replaced by a pie-eating contest. It was part of his conception of Aida as being about religious fundamentalism; conductor Johannes Debus (also the COC’s music director) suggested that perhaps it would have gone over better with the Germans if it had featured curry sausages instead of pie.

I’m also quite delighted that Alden directed the audience to a youtube video of the production’s Dutchman, an extensively tattooed former Navy man named Evgeny Nikitin (Video here – embedding is disabled on this one). Be warned that it’s all in Russian. Even if you’re not Russian, the audio and visuals are worth it.