The story of the Flying Dutchman is one of constant searching.
He is doomed to spend eternity looking for redemption, for love,
for a home, for belonging. Director Martin Kušej chooses
to represent this story through the very contemporary but somewhat
clunky metaphor of displaced people seeking a home in the West.
In Kušej’s vision it is asylum seekers and refugees
who most closely resemble the Dutchman’s quest, hence
the Dutchman is a fixer who organises transport for these unfortunates,
and his crew are black-hooded immigrants seeking to get ashore
safely. The set, consisting of a mostly bare stage with a row
of glass doors at the back, suggests a zone at the front for
the “haves” (Daland, his crew and his family) and
a zone at the back of the stage, beyond the glass doors for
the “have nots”, the Dutchman’s crew of hoodies.
Then, surprisingly, the situation is reversed for the final
act when the Dutchman’s crew sit impassively huddled together
at the front of the stage while the hedonistic westerners cavort
and frolic behind a wire mesh. I guess there’s nothing
wrong with it as an idea, but my main problem was that I found
it fundamentally very reductive. Gone is the grandeur and passion
of the Dutchman’s tragedy: instead he is reduced to a
slightly tawdry international trafficker whose “death”
at the end (I won’t spoil it) didn’t move me or
evoke much sympathy.
More effective was the treatment of the Westerners - it seems
wrong, in the context of this production, to call them Norwegians
- as superficial, shallow pleasure-seekers. Daland seems to
be the captain of a cruise-ship whose disgruntled passengers
have become the victim of some very heavy turbulence. The Steersman
pinches the glittering jacket of one of the cabaret singers
when it comes to his aria in Act 1, suggesting his love of performing.
Act 2 seems to be set in a health spa, complete with swimming
pool, populated by bored rich ladies and WAGs in trashy costumes.
Only Senta, dressed in black, stands out from the crowd and
represents traditional values by carrying on her spinning, and
she is ridiculed by all the others for doing so.
While the production may have holes, the singing is more than
enough to carry them. The towering Dutchman of Uusitalo is outstanding.
He is one of a very small number of baritones in the world today
who can really make this role come off. His voice has undeniable
strength and power - just listen to his revelation of his identity
in Act 3 - but it is suffused with humanity throughout, its
softer edge reinforcing the character’s sympathy. His
great Act 1 monologue is powerful and effecting, but also deeply
moving and sympathetic. Catherine Nagelstad is perhaps a surprising
choice for Wagner, but her singing as Senta is a revelation.
She is a wonderfully convincing dramatic soprano, and her entire
interpretation builds to the climax of her final phrases in
Act 3 (sung with razor-sharp precision) but her voice never
becomes too steely and, like Uusitalo, hers is a character with
whom the viewer can sympathise. She sings the Act 2 narrative
with dramatic lyricism and the moment when she accepts the Dutchman’s
proposal is thrilling. For the contribution of these two, the
extended duet at the end of the second act is the highlight
of the set.
In 2004 I attended a performance at the Royal Opera House which
was supposed to signal Robert Lloyd’s retirement from
major roles. He has clearly changed his mind as he is singing
now as well as he has ever done. His Daland is strong vigorous,
and even quite funny in places. Lloyd never shirks the idea
that Daland is in it for the money, as his interactions with
Senta and the Dutchman in Act 2 confirm, but this seems to bring
more wry humour than censure. He is also a little foppish in
Act 1 as the entertainment on his cruise ship goes awry, but
his singing treads the line between drama and levity very well,
and his sunglasses are a nice touch! Marco Jentzsch prowls around
the stage like a wild animal, suggesting an element of danger
to Erik, a character normally seen as a bit of a drip, though
his singing has a rough edge and lacks the lyricism of his colleagues.
Mary’s plummy voice sticks out a little, but the Steersman
is ardent and compelling, though his humour perhaps irks a little.
Hartmut Haenchen’s pacing of the score is just right,
conducting the storm scenes like psychological thrillers, while
allowing the great dialogues to unfold with a clear sense of
drama, and the orchestra’s playing is excellent. The choral
singing is fantastic too, and they have a great time bounding
around the stage in their various guises. The sound and picture
quality is up to Opus Arte’s usual excellent standards
and, another feature we have come to expect and enjoy from them,
the staging has been very effectively re-imagined for a video
audience. The waves of the sea sweep up over the title menus
and the prelude is played to the backdrop of a surging storm
scene. Furthermore, during the transitions the shots of the
orchestra are in black and white to reinforce how separate they
are from the bright, colourful vision of what is happening on
stage. There is also a short (c. 20 minute) extra feature featuring
interviews with the cast and staging team, which is very interesting
and worth the time to view.
I enjoyed this film very much, mainly for the singing rather
than the staging, though if I wanted to introduce the Dutchman
to a new audience, I think I’d still point them to Harry
Kupfer’s 1985 Bayreuth staging, available on Deutsche
Grammophon, still with the power to astonish 25 years later.