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.
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.”