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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Der fliegende Holländer (1843)
Thomas Gazheli (baritone) – Dutchman, Marjorie Owens (soprano) – Senta, Mikhail Petrenko (bass) – Daland, Bernhard Berchtold (tenor) – Erik, Annette Jahns (mezzo-soprano) – Mary, Timothy Oliver (tenor) – Steersman, Coro Ars Lyrica
Chorus and Orchestra of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Fabio Luisi
rec. January 2019, Teatro del Maggio Musicale, Florence
C MAJOR 753904 Blu-ray [146 mins]

A review of the live staging of this production in Florence quoted in the booklet called the director’s approach “conventional;” and this is a sufficiently unusual description to be remarkable in the realm of modern opera, especially in Europe. It also happens to be generally true of this Flying Dutchman; there are no attempts made to revert back to earlier versions of the score (we are given the music and Norwegian setting as Wagner revised it in 1860), we stick pretty closely to Wagner’s own stage directions and the additional advice he gave to producers in the 1850s, and the sets successively depict a rocky seashore, a spinning room, and the harbour side as specified in the scenario. Further realism is added by the use of film projections from backstage and from front of house, and an attempt is even made to depict the “happy ending” of Senta and the Dutchman clasped in each other’s arms as the final curtain falls.

So far, so good; and Paul Curran has gone even further in his attempts to match Wagner’s dramatic score by providing a real coup de thęatre in each of the three Acts (in order to accommodate the change of sets, the opera is staged with pauses between the scenes as was usually the practice during the composer’s lifetime). In Act One, front projections of raging billows are overwhelmed by the arrival of the Dutchman’s ship with ragged sails waving in the wind and dominating the stage, through means of a backlit image from which the Dutchman appears in silhouette. He is again featured in silhouette against the open door as he enters in Act Two, as a lurid sunset suddenly appears at his entrance to a rapturous Senta who appears suddenly to be plunged into the world of a dream. And during Act Three the apparition of the Dutchman’s crew to the terrified Norwegian sailors, with luridly horrific blood-spattered projections plunging them into darkness, has the sense of nightmare that Wagner conjures up with such ferocity and which usually tempts theatrical directors into the realms of excess.

But then, in theatrical terms, this production unfortunately misfires nearly as often as it scores hits. Wagner left very specific instructions for the staging of the meeting of the Dutchman and Senta in Act Two, hinging around the absolute stillness of the two singers amidst the genial conversation in which Daland seeks to involve them; and the few modern productions which observe those directions (one thinks of Hildegard Behrens and Franz Grundheber at Savonlinna) prove that Wagner knew precisely what he was doing. Here Paul Curran permits the couple to circle each other warily, with the Dutchman seeking to shake hands formally and Senta awkwardly avoiding physical contact in a manner that might work in purely theatrical terms but jars horribly against the innate frozen nature of the music with its ominous timpani beats. Another such example comes in Act Three, when the Dutchman is seen in full view watching the end of the scene between Senta and Erik, clearly simply standing and waiting for his cue to suddenly interject with expressions of dismay and horror – when the music equally clearly expects this interruption to come as a shock as much to the audience as everyone else on stage. The reconciliation between Senta and the Dutchman at the end also seems far too corporeal, more as if the couple have undergone a bodily resurrection rather than a unity in death (despite some rather obvious use of spotlights). Sometimes the choral positioning too appears to be overly mechanical, an attempt to get the singers in the right places for optimum delivery rather than dramatic verisimilitude. It may be because of these moments of uncertainty that Tiziano Mancini’s video direction sometimes seems to find the cameras pointing in the wrong direction; why is the steersman apparently getting into an argument with some of the Norwegian crew when Daland is giving him instructions, for example?

The casting too is not without its moments of uncertainty. At the very outset Mikhail Petrenko seems an unusually baritonal Daland (certainly so, for a Russian bass) and at the same time demonstrates some discomfort on high notes; there are certainly a couple of occasions when he settles on the flat side of cadential phrases. Timothy Oliver, a personable steersman, persistently seems to display a slight huskiness with the held high Gs at the end of his phrases in Mit Gewitter und Sturm although he is excellent thereafter. Annette Jahns is rather too bossy as Mary, but then the production seems to picture her as the forewoman in charge of a workshop of seamstresses operating very 1930s Singer sewing machines; the décor indeed would seem to place the action during that era, although otherwise this is left vague. Bernhard Berchtold is also placed at a disadvantage by being asked to play Erik as a very middle-aged and rather hen-pecked hunter – surely he should be young and personable enough to explain the Dutchman’s suspicions? – but he brings plenty of metal to his tone in his dream, and his voice has agility enough to cope with the rather saccharine cadenza with which Wagner provides him in his final aria.

In the two leading roles, however, this production strikes gold. Thomas Gazheli, sounding more bass-orientated than Daland, is nonetheless more than confidently capable of dealing with his strenuously high-lying passages, and also proves himself well able to project the text through the young Wagner’s often inconsiderately over-loud orchestral writing. He also is able to fine down his tone for the middle section of his opening monologue, and the unaccompanied beginning of the love duet, without sacrificing body or warmth. His final declaration of his identity, which can be chilling in the right hands, lacks the ultimate degree of venom; but this cannot have been helped by the producer’s decision to take him offstage during Senta’s preceding declaration of love and then bring him back on situated further back on a raised platform, clearly ready for a quick getaway onto his ship. The Senta of Marjorie Owens deserves less cavalier treatment than that. She is hardly a glamorous figure on stage, even when she takes up her Tosca-like poise for her final exit (Mancini’s camera moves away from her at that point!) but like Rita Hunter, who she resembles in many ways, she has a warmth of voice and manner coupled to a laser-like accuracy on top notes, which marks her out as a very notable vocal artist. It is a pity that for their duet the two lovers are left isolated on a stage which is still cluttered with the decidedly unromantic sewing machines lined up on their factory tables.

Fabio Luisi in the pit works himself into quite a lather during the overture, but the view we catch of the players of the orchestra do not show a body of musicians doing much more than going through the very efficient motions, with even the tremolos of the string players seeming rather laid back. The general impression one gets from the sound is certainly exciting, as one would expect in this music, but sometimes shrill in the eldritch passages depicting the Dutchman’s ship and crew and at other times tubby with very reverberant timpani. The male chorus, especially in their big scene at the opening of Act Three, sound generally more at ease with the German language than their female counterparts who nonetheless provide a suitably gentle background for Marjorie Owens in her ballad. In general the performance is however in line with the higher standards that we nowadays expect to find in Italian opera houses, and certainly a match for the more rough-and-ready outdoor tones that we find at Savonlinna – my preferred version of this opera on video (I reviewed it back in 2013) – even though the Finns under Leif Segerstam are more closely in sympathy with the rugged nature of the music itself.

For those seeking a more modern video recording of the Dutchman, though, with 16:9 Blu-Ray picture format and PCM stereo, I would certainly recommend this version over some others that I have encountered and reviewed for this site over recent years – versions set in the passenger lounge of a steamship company (Netherlands Opera), or a factory making tourist souvenirs (Bayreuth). It adheres pretty closely to the composer’s directions, it avoids second-guessing the music by reverting to versions of the score which Wagner himself rejected, it is generally well sung and efficiently delivered, and it packs quite an emotional wallop in places. The booklet notes (three pages) come in English, German and French; full track listings are provided; and subtitles are provided in German, English, Korean and Japanese.

Paul Corfield Godfrey



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