Der fliegende Holländer, Bayreuth Festival, July 2012

The 2012 Wagner festival at Bayreuth started in dramatic fashion when the singer in the title role for a new production of The Flying Dutchman suddenly pulled out. Evgeny Nikitin, covered in body-tattoos from his former career as a heavy-metal singer, found himself the focus of attention, and although claims of a swastika seem unfounded, his presence became a hot issue and he withdrew. The festival administration, once run by Hitler admirer Winifred Wagner, took no chances on that score, but all turned out well, and Samuel Youn, who replaced Nikitin, fell to his knees at the end, gratefully accepting thunderous applause for a powerfully sung performance. Adrianne Pieczonka sang a glorious Senta, and her father Daland was warmly portrayed by Franz-Josef Selig as a suave, lightly-bearded character in a double-breasted suit. Benjamin Bruns delivered a beautifully sung helmsman, and Michael König a passionate Erik.

Daland and Dutchman, all images Bayreuther Festspiele/ Enrico Nawrath

The singers, including the fine chorus, were superbly supported by Christian Thielemann, hidden away in the covered orchestra pit of this extraordinary opera house. As one of today’s greatest Wagner interpreters, he gave the music huge excitement, starting with the overture, which brought out and contrasted the elemental power of wind and sea with the plaintive call of the woodwind.

Senta and her toys

The Dutchman roams the seas, halting every seven years to seek redemption through true love, yet this production contains no ships, save a small dinghy at the beginning seating the sea captain Daland and his helmsman. When the Dutchman arrives with his tiny suitcase and strange skin condition, a girl in sexy lingerie tries her luck, but he rejects her. Daland then offers his daughter Senta, whose conventional world is represented as a factory packing electric fans into cardboard boxes. Her yearning to get away is hardly surprising, and her red dress is the only real dash of colour in this dull environment, apart from her cardboard toys splashed with red paint.

Senta’s simple environment contrasts with the hugely elaborate set at the start, showing an alien, electronic world from which the Dutchman emerges, yet the studied uniformity in both worlds emphasises Senta as the one who is different. Subtlety and irony are absent, and for his first production at Bayreuth, 30-year old theatre director Jan Philipp Gloger may have underestimated the power and clarity of Wagner’s music to such a sophisticated audience. After the stamping and cheering for singers and conductor, his production team was greeted with a barrage of boos.

Senta and her Dutchman

In a question and answer session the following day, the director apparently gave clear and reasonable explanations of his interpretation. For example when the Dutchman first arrives he rolls up his sleeve and appears to stab himself in the arm. To the audience this looks rather as if he were giving himself an injection, but in fact it demonstrates that he does bleed when wounded. Later in the opera when he has fallen for Senta his arm bleeds, showing he has become flesh and blood. Such explanations are obviously helpful, but the production should not need them.

Apparently Herr Gloger could relate details of his production to the music itself, which may help explain why the conductor, Christian Thielemann — a great Wagnerian — endorsed him so clearly during the curtain calls, despite the adverse audience reaction.

Performances of Dutchman continue until August 24 — for details click here.

One Response to “Der fliegende Holländer, Bayreuth Festival, July 2012”

  1. waldteufel says:

    Despite the fine musical performance I have to say this was not only the most unmusical production of anything I’ve ever seen at Bayreuth (including 3 different previous productions) but also the most inept. To ignore all of Wagner’s coups de theatre – the arrival of the Dutchman in act one, his appearance in act two, the ghostly chorus in act three indicates a total lack of musical understanding and theatrical ‘nous’. Gloger’s insistence on the same hideous setting for acts two and three consisting of an ugly platform surrounded by dirty grey plastic sheeting and covered in brown cardboard boxes on which the characters often climb while a pointless revolve slowly turns is unutterably boring to look at. Worst of all – the opera is played as a comedy (or send-up) the Dutchman and Erik (!) being the only serious characters, the rest, including the magnificently sung chorus, all mugging – even Senta, supposedly sophisticated in this setting yet still playing with children’s toys. I’m surprised that Thielemann, chief musical advisor at Bayreuth apparently, was happy to see this wonderful work so trashed. The very ending is unspeakably horrid.
    I’m all for new interpretations when thought through by a producer of genius (say Kupfer’s Bayreuth production) but this was amateur dramatics writ large. Quite the worst Dutchman production I’ve seen in 60 years of operagoing. Let’s hope the 2013 Ring isn’t in the hands of another talentless nonentity.

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