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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Der fliegende Holländer (1843, revised 1860) [140.00]
Samuel Youn (bass) - Dutchman; Ricarda Merbeth (soprano) - Senta; Franz-Josef Selig (bass) - Daland; Tomislav Mu˛ek (tenor) - Erik; Christa Mayer (mezzo) - Mary; Benjamin Bruns (tenor) - Steersman
Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra/Christian Thielemann
rec. Bayreuth Festival, 25 July 2013
extras: interviews with Jan Phillip Gloger, Christian Thielmann, Eberhard Friedrich and Benjamin Bruns [25.00]
OPUS ARTE OABD7147D Blu-ray [165.00]

The productions which have emanated from the Bayreuth Festival since the abdication of Wolfgang Wagner have received a generally mixed press. Some critics have hailed the dawn of a new era of adventurous and experimental stagings. Others have excoriated them in equally vociferous terms. Some while ago I was singularly unimpressed with the Hans Neuenfels 2010 production of Lohengrin, which seemed to me to spend most of its time fighting headlong against what Wagner was telling us in the music. This production of Der fliegende Holländer cleaves considerably more closely to Wagner's original stage directions, which he outlined and expanded at great length in a lengthy essay on the subject of the opera written in 1853. It is nevertheless obsessed by its own concept, which is outlined on the back of the box containing the disc: "He [Jan Phillip Gloger] translates the tale of the Dutchman to a future time, where part-human/part-cyborgs grind out an existence in a world completely subservient to business and commerce. In the modern fan-making factory, which replaces the world of Senta and her fellow seamstresses, we see a final tableau in which the Dutchman's and Senta's heavenly union is 'commemorated' by the factory workers now producing souvenir statuettes of the couple."

Well, I am glad for that explanation, because otherwise I might have had considerable difficulty in seeing what Gloger was getting at. In an interview published in the booklet, he expands somewhat on his intentions, explaining that he also wanted to emphasise the relationship between the Dutchman and Senta. He also intended to underscore the importance of the sea which, as he observes, is "a further protagonist in the first act". Well, I cannot find any evidence whatsoever of the existence of the sea in this production. What we do see are a series of laser beams, strongly reminiscent of Kupfer's 1990s staging of the Ring but less colourful. This is enlivened by a series of scrolling projected numbers which I suppose are intended to show the passage of time but are merely distracting. At the very beginning Daland and the Steersman - both dressed in lounge suits and ties, which would seem to be highly unsuitable wear for sea voyages in any period past, present or future - are discovered in a rather small rowing boat. There is obviously no room in such a vessel for its crew, so for their appearance at the end of the Act the Norwegian sailors simply march forward across the stage in concert formation - so much for dramatic verisimilitude. The arrival of the Dutchman's ship goes for nothing, since the cameras show us very little of the stage picture at this point, concentrating on the sleeping Steersman; presumably not much was actually happening. The Dutchman, in his cyborg outfit, is accompanied by a couple of technicians who seem to be subjecting him to running repairs. The effect of this, together with the skeletal lasers, is somehow reminiscent of a Borg cube out of Star Trek. During the following scene attention is continually drawn away from the Dutchman and Daland by fussy manipulations of paper documents by the Steersman. He also seems to be intent on making away with as much of the Dutchman's treasure as possible. Like so many additional 'ideas' by modern producers, this simply succeeds in undermining the music. Some of the ideas here are also inadequately explained: why does one of his attendants bring a polystyrene cup of coffee to the Dutchman during his monologue, and why does he unceremoniously throw it to the ground?

In the Second Act the maidens in the spinning room - now the factory, making modern electric air-conditioning fans rather than oriental props - adopt stylised poses. These were old-fashioned even when Gilbert was producing his three little maids for The Mikado, rendering their light-hearted gossip even more air-headed than usual. Erik is already on stage, repairing some electrical faults in the wall, which makes one wonder how he knows that Daland's ship has returned from his viewpoint high on the cliff. However once the Dutchman arrives with Daland things thankfully settle down. Gloger sticks pretty closely to Wagner's precise stage directions for the absolute stillness of Senta and the Dutchman from their first sight of each other, incidentally demonstrating that the composer knew exactly what he was doing. Modern producers who depart from these do so at their peril.

In the Third Act - where there is no change of scene - the contrast between the Norwegian and Dutch crews is well managed, even if the appearance of the latter does bring up distant memories of Michael Jackson's Thriller. The amplification of the Dutch crew, with what sounds like added electronic distortion, is I think a mistake. Some sort of differentiation is clearly needed here. Without amplification there is always a severe danger than their words will be obscured by the violent orchestral outbursts emanating from the pit but even given the portrayal of the crew as cyborgs the aggressively hi-tech sound that results here sounds ruinously inauthentic. After this scene there is another questionable production decision, when Senta and Erik in their scene together are both fully aware that the Dutchman is hovering in the background. This gives Erik's cavatina - nicely delivered at a flowing tempo - an element of grandstanding which is foreign to the emotion of the music at that moment. The final moments, with the souvenir statuettes proudly displayed to the sounds of Wagner's 'redemption music', are the purest hokum.

All of this is all the more annoying since the musical performance itself is generally excellent. From the very beginning it is clear that Christian Thielemann intends to stamp his authority on things, with a strongly romantic performance that makes very little concession to notions of early nineteenth century style. His approach pays rich dividends throughout in illuminating details of the score in a manner that the composer would surely have approved. To judge by what I have heard of his Bayreuth Ring, Thielemann was not ideally served there by a cast of rather mixed abilities; but there are no such concerns here. Franz-Josef Selig is one of the best Dalands I have ever encountered, finding subtleties in his music that are always interesting and often rather more than that. Benjamin Bruns is a Steersman in the heroic mould. He takes an unwanted breath in the middle of a line in his ballad, but otherwise comes over well and even manages to make sense of some of his interpolated stage business. Samuel Youn as the Dutchman is firmly centred, steady as a rock, and also displays a close engagement with the text. His German is sometimes rather suspect, sounding to me - with my unidiomatic command of the language - as if he mangles both vowel sounds and consonants in places, but non-German-speakers will delight in the tonal variety he produces.

In the Second Act we encounter the youthful Senta of Ricarda Merbeth, who excels in a role that seems, oddly enough, to defeat many heroic sopranos. The only concern about her absorbed and absorbing portrayal is the suspicion that she might be living a bit too much on vocal capital. One fears for the effect on her voice in future years but it is nonetheless a most exciting sound, and a riveting dramatic performance to boot. Christa Meyer is suitably bossy as Mary, and Tomislav Mu˛ek as Erik, more lyrical-sounding than the Steersman, has plenty of body to ride the orchestral tumults that punctuate his lines and - thank goodness - never sounds lachrymose.

The subtitles comes in English, French, German and Korean; these are also available for the four brief German-language interviews which comes as extras. They add nothing substantial to the contents of the Blu-Ray and do nothing to explain some of the more questionable production decisions.

When I reviewed a reissue of the production from the Savonlinna Festival last year on Blu-Ray, I spent some time looking at alternative video versions. It may be helpful here to repeat some of what I said on that occasion: "There is surprisingly little available competition for this opera on DVD. The current catalogue lists the Netherlands Opera's radically modernised production, which I reviewed with limited enthusiasm last year. There's also a Bayreuth production which portrays the whole plot as a dream of Senta's, and employs Wagner's original ending for both overture and opera. The only available production which is free of such directorial conceits is a filmed version conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch, which achieves graphic realism in the production but similarly uses Wagner's original truncated ending. This adds a further gratuitous cut in the opening scene of Act Three. So that means that if you want a production which sticks closely to Wagner's original carefully conceived scenario, this is your only option. It is not a bad one, and the balance between voices and orchestra is far more realistic and satisfactory than in the Sawallisch film. One would welcome the re-release of the BBC television production of the early 1970s, with Gwyneth Jones and Norman Bailey in the leading roles, which I recall with affection. This new release does nothing to change my views on the subject, and although the singing and playing here is superior to that on the Warner Classics release from Savonlinna, and the recorded sound is decidedly better, the earlier release gives the viewer a far better view of what Der fliegende Holländer is actually about.

Paul Corfield Godfrey