Der Fliegende Holländer
Rough voyage: Gloger’s new Holländer at Bayreuth, with Pieczonka, Selig and Youn
© Bayreuther Festspiele/photo by Enrico Nawrath 2012
Act I of director Jan Philipp Gloger's new Bayreuth production of Der Fliegende Holländer (seen at its second evening, on July 31) takes place on a set with a shiny floor surrounded by a convolution of what appear to be electronic diodes. Different eight-digit digital numbers flash, counting upwards. Could they be a display of the national debt or simply the rising profits of the corporation headed up by Daland? For in this Holländer, Daland is a factory owner. His factory mass-produces electric fans. The Steuermann is his sycophantic first assistant. His entire "crew" is made up of factory employees, all dressed in proper business suits. Daland and his crew have been away on business, but there is no indication of a seaworthy ship and — except for the burnished floor surface — none of water, either. The only boat we encounter is a dinghy in which Daland and the Steuermann sit, dressed in suit and tie. The gifts that the Steuermann and, we will later see, the "crew" have brought back for their maidens consist of expensive designer dresses with the price tags still attached. Ostentatious money is making the world go round in this production.
The Dutchman enters — again no ship is in sight — wheeling the newest version of a lightweight, four-wheeled trolley. The text may mention jewels, but his luggage is full of paper currency. The Dutchman is accompanied by — among others — a servant in livery and several very fancily (if scantily) dressed women; he might just as well have disembarked from a luxury cruise liner, were it not for the fact that parts of his forehead, face and hands are branded by patterns in black. During his monologue, the Dutchman slits his wrists, but aside from a wound and lots of blood, his suicide attempt does not (and by definition cannot) succeed.
Ever on the lookout for new customers, the first thing the Steuermann tries to do after spotting this odd-looking man is sell him a fan. As the initial set moves to the wings, a stage upon a stage emerges, to show the packing room of Daland's factory. Set designer Christof Hetzer has fallen victim to the vagaries of the Festival House acoustics: the construction itself is more than a little dangerous, acoustically, with one side open and both back and roof covered in plastic. The voices, even those of the chorus, sound distant and masked, although a tantalizingly large chunk of the basic stage at the front remains unused.
The women are factory workers, dressed in blue work outfits and packing fans for shipping into cartons. The "spinning" is provided by the blades of the fans. Mary is the work-floor overseer. Senta, in a blood-red dress, has created her own primitive image of the Dutchman and his world out of cardboard. Erik is the factory's handyman, his hunter's weapons being his tool case.
What does Gloger's staging have to do with Wagner's opera? The director has certainly rethought the story and, in an oblique way, has chosen to retell it with an eye on the misery of today's globalized world economy, where profit is trump and feeling for one's fellow human beings has fallen by the wayside. The Dutchman is searching for a love that money cannot buy. The rest of the characters, with the exception of Senta, are looking for profit. Gloger deploys his people — particularly the chorus — in an absolutely masterful way; gestures are synchronized and matched to the moment's musical expression, each movement underscoring Gloger's view of the unfolding drama. Though this stylization of movement sometimes seems more suited to Gilbert and Sullivan than to Wagner, it is captivating. There is also, much to Gloger's credit, a spine-chilling intensity to the scenes between Senta and the Dutchman.
Overall, the production is not a success. In the debit column, Act III, with the exception of the double suicide of the main protagonists, descends into mere silliness. The male chorus behaves like a group of cloned morons. The final, touching moment — the redeemed dying in a heartfelt embrace — is brutally trivialized when the image is photographed by the Steuermann and used, as seen in the apotheosis, as a model for the firm's new plastic best-seller. The audience's negative reaction as the performance came to an end was utterly predictable. Gloger's concept might read well on paper but is too farfetched to carry an entire evening. Had Gloger trusted Wagner's sense of the dramatic, his own talents as a director might have registered even more positively.
In this Bayreuth season — the third in the seven-year contract of the half-sisters Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier — a scandal of international interest centered on Bayreuth's chosen Dutchman, thirty-eight-year-old Russian baritone Evgeny Nikitin, who was scheduled to make his Festival debut. It seems that in his younger years, when he was working in a heavy-metal band, Nikitin had his body liberally tattooed. When photographs of his bare upper torso were circulated in the German press shortly before the Dutchman dress rehearsal, several sources claimed that some of Nikitin's tattoos resembled Nazi iconography. Nikitin's initial response to the controversy was to say that the tattoos were a regrettable sin of his youth, but in interviews published in the U.S. press in early August, Nikitin categorically denied that he had ever had a swastika tattoo, as had been previously published.
As anything even remotely suggestive of the Third Reich has the potential to be a major embarrassment for the Bayreuth Festival — and as there is presently on view in Bayreuth an exhibition painting the destinies of every Jewish Festival participant who was either murdered or forced to emigrate by the Nazi regime — Nikitin became a lightning rod. He withdrew from the production on short notice. After weeks of intense rehearsal, a new Dutchman had to be found and worked into the production mere days before the premiere. The talented singer who jumped in, Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn, cannot be given enough credit for his efforts. His voice is of more than ample size, his timbre often approached the heroic, and, amazingly, he grasped the essentials of Gloger's unusual stage concept. Although Youn could have made more of the text — and he sang more comfortably at forte than at piano — his was a laudable performance in extraordinarily trying circumstances.
The true vocal laurels of the evening went to soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, whose Senta was as dramatically committed as it was stunningly sung. Pieczonka sang with immaculate diction and a youthful purity of sound, moving from strength to strength as the evening progressed. Tenor Benjamin Bruns was an impressively pure-toned Steuermann whose voice rang out clearly in all registers. Christa Mayer contributed a finely contoured, vocally imposing Mary. Bass Franz-Josef Selig had a number of bland moments as Daland, some of which might have been influenced by poor positioning on the difficult Act II set, but his overall performance was never less than competent. Tenor Michael König's Erik began with problems of projection, although his performance improved vastly in the final act.
The Bayreuth Chorus (prepared by Eberhard Friedrich) once again justified its reputation as the world's best in this repertoire. The women were particularly impressive, singing with an enviable homogeneity of sound. Christian Thielemann delivered a masterful interpretation of unflagging intensity; he chose to conduct Wagner's final version of Dutchman, less taut than the original but certainly better suited to Thielemann's Romantic interpretive nature. His was a very impressive reading, beginning with an invigorating, stunningly played overture. Thielemann is not afraid to invest the music with pregnant pauses before significant musical-dramatic statements, and his sculpting of rubatos fit not only musical instinct but textual necessities.
JEFFREY A. LEIPSIC
Send feedback to OPERA NEWS.