When the soprano Aino
Ackté visited the castle at Olavinlinna
nearly a hundred years ago, she was
struck by its romantic setting on an
outcrop of rocks, surrounded by ocean.
To this day the Savonlinna Opera Festival
is held in the courtyard of the fortified
medieval castle. An atmospheric venue
indeed, for Der fliegende Holländer,
an opera which has become a Savonlinna
speciality, performed at nearly every
festival. This DVD is a live recording
of the celebrated Behrens/Grundheber/Salminen
performance of 1989, conducted by Leif
Segerstam, directed by Ilkka Bäckmann,
a Savonlinna perennial. It was directed
for video by Aarno Cronvall.
The simplicity of this
film reflects the Savonlinna ethos.
It is unpretentious, almost to the point
of seeming superficially casual. Musically
and artistically, however, the standards
are very high indeed. The film starts
with a panorama of the castle, from
the sky, panning down to the sea surface,
which is actually quite calm, rather
than the storm-tossed maelstrom suggested
in the music. But that's a minor quibble.
The film's regular use of the image
of the sea takes on a surreal, timeless
quality, an unchanging backdrop to overtures
and preludes. On second and third viewings,
it has an almost hypnotic effect, holding
the visual narrative together. Segerstam
gets very focused playing from the orchestra,
underlining the quintessential Wagner
ebb and flow of dramatic and lyrical.
It's an interesting irony to see scenes
set on ships inside a building surrounded
by the sea
The maritime choreography
of the Norwegian crew will have been
done more stylishly many times, but
the slightly bedraggled chorus here
had the unassuming look of real workmen.
Their singing was good – not Covent
Garden chorus standards but appropriately
rough and ready. Matti Salminen as Daland,
barks out orders to his seamen but beneath
the surface, he's a hapless dreamer,
thinking that good times come easy.
Wagner wrote the role of Steersman as
a contrast: the Steersman does nothing
but sleep and dream, even when a storm
crashes around him while he's supposed
to be on watch. Even when a ghostly
ship moors alongside, he won't give
up his dreams. In this production the
dynamic between the two is strong. Salminen
plays Daland as a well rounded character,
a businessman with an eye for the main
chance – his sidelong glances, eyes
narrowing to slits, may give the appearance
of a canny bargainer, but he's transparent.
Jorma Silvastri, as the Steersman, is
so young and fresh looking here that
the makeup and beard he wears for the
character also seem an attempt to make
him appear fiercer than he really is.
It's quite engaging.
In masterly contrast
to both of them is the Dutchman himself.
He has no illusions. He's desperate
to find a woman who can break the curse
upon him. In the long dialogue between
Daland and the Dutchman, Franz Grundheber
is imperturbable. The two burly basses
square off, Daland wrapping himself
in the Dutchman's plastic cloak as if
it were a treasure. The treasure in
the chest, incidentally, really does
look tacky on film – perhaps it's symbolic,
but the audience would not have been
able to see it close up, as we do on
Act Two opens with
the female chorus. They are spinning,
using authentic looking spinning machines.
Their clothes are also home-spun, and
vegetable dyed, a charming detail. The
camera panned on individual members
of the chorus and not just the conventionally
pretty ones, either, but on a woman
with a glorious smile – such a contrast
to the neurotic Senta. The women were
robust looking, and active, again in
contrast to the wan heroine, doing nothing
but dream of the legend. Anita Vällki
sang a very distinctive Mary. Dressed
in sophisticated velvet and exquisitely
maquillée, her striking looks
and voice provided yet another contrast
to Senta. It was disconcerting to see
Hildegard Behrens as Senta, her face
tense and etched with anxiety, less
childishly youthful than Salminen as
her father. Perhaps too, that is a telling
detail about the dynamics of the plot.
Nonetheless, the moment Behrens started
to sing, all was transformed. Her voice
is glorious, full of passion and intensity,
rich and mysterious. The scene in which
she and the Dutchman lock eyes on each
other is so rapt with fervour that the
plot line is totally believable.
Erik the huntsman,
Raimo Sirkiä, doesn't stand a chance.
Grundheber's acting may seem impassive,
but his voice conveys his heartbreak
and disappointment. Nonetheless, Senta
has chosen her dream and leaps over
the parapet to demonstrate her loyalty
unto death. Interestingly, while Wagner
suggested the music end with an image
of Senta and the Dutchman together,
this film shows those left behind, like
Erik and Mary, looking stunned.
The film has a general
"home made" feel, with very
basic titles and text. Camera shots
are held for a long time and somewhat
repetitive. The ungroomed, homely chorus
members (of both sexes) would never
do at the Met. Nonetheless, I felt this
was an advantage. Slick and flashy means
little when singing is as good as this.
The down to earth honesty of the production
is refreshing, putting all emphasis
unselfconsciously on the music. The
live audience, spared from the longueurs
of the film, must have had a memorable
evening, which thanks to this release,
we, too, can enjoy.