Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Der fliegende Holländer 1841 Theater an der Wien

From the edgy, innovative Theater an der Wien, a new production of Wagner Der fliegende Holländer which will have some screaming. But the joke is on them. For one thing, it's set in Scotland, not Norway, which might discomfort those who think the first line of a synopsis is sacred writ. No Daland, but Donald, no Erik, but Georg. In the first part of the 19th century, Scotland symbolized a kind of generic wilderness on the edge of civilization, where extreme situations could happen. Hence the Romantiker notion of Scotland that runs through Lucia de Lammermoor, through the craze for Ossian and later Sir Walter Scott. Even Mendelssohn was caught up in the quest. This Scotland as romanticized prototype. Significantly, Wagner himself relocated the plot to Norway.

This production is based on the Ur-edition, edited by Bruno Weil  some 15 years ago, which Wagner wrote in Paris in 1841, before  the premiere of the opera in Dresden in January 1843. Weil  recorded this version in 2004, and it has been done several times in small houses, as an internet search can reveal.  This Theater an der Wien production is in another league, and gives it the high-profile exposure it deserves and adds immensely to our understanding of Wagner's creative processes.  There are other differences. Senta's ballade "Trafft Ihr das Schiff" is transposed  upwards, which gives it a more fragile quality, and some familiar details in the orchestration are less prominent, though the recurring Steuermann theme shines nicely. Because I'd been busy before the broadcast, I hadn't checked the cast, and assumed this was the normal Dresden version. But within minutes it was obvious that it was not, since it's sketchier  sketchier and more tentative. No chance that it will ever be more than an insight, rather than an alternative.

We're confronted by a bleak grey wall. But then, so is Senta,  who isn't happy with conventional society, but fixates on the portrait of a demonic figure who sails the oceans under a curse. Taking a piece of chalk, the woman writes the word Erlösung on the wall. Graffiti as a gesture of rebellion. Erlösung means redemption, which would become a familiar meme in Wagner's dramas, but also means a way out of a dilemma. In a corner, away from the greyness, a man sits, putting on makeup before a brightly lit mirror.  He's a dancer. Why dance in  Der fliegende Holländer? Why not, if the opera was originally conceived for Paris? In an opera which predicates on surreal states of consciousness, the dancer reminds us that there are presences we can't initially comprehend. Don't rush to judgement.  When the village parties, the sailors from the ghost ship materialize as dancers.  It's an extremely effective coup de théâtre.

Samuel Youn sings the Holländer with great presence.  Youn's Holländer is no big mean brute, but a surprisingly sympathetic personality.  When he rejects Senta's sacrifice, the nuances in Youn's voice suggests the heartbreak the Dutchman feels. For a bass baritone, Youn's voice is surprisingly agile, which can be an advantage. Ingela Brimberg sings Senta, Lars Woldt sings a superbly snarky Donald, and Bernhard Richter sings Georg. Manuel Günther sang the Steuermann.   Ann-Beth Solvang sang Mary, her chorus of women (the Arnold Schoenberg Choir)  shown as choristers, quite appropriately.

I don't know who the main dancer is, but he's good, his athletic physicality particularly effective when he and his colleagues are dancing the Holländer's crew. They're athletically physical, more like demons than ghosts, which is a valid perspective.  "They don't need to dance with girls" the villagers sing, and  sure enough one of the trio of dancers is a man dressed as a woman. Not quite the Three Graces.  Marc Minkowski conducted Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble. They use period instruments, as Weil did in his recording, but here the playing is much more vigorous, even pugnacious, reflecting Minkowski's strong-minded style.  Olivier Py directed, with atmospheric designs by Pierre-André Weitz. Watch the "ship" emerge, in the form of a huge, shining metallic skull.  When the ,Holländer's sailors come on land, all hell seems to break loose.  Skeletons are seen dancing: it's a trick of light, for the dancers are holding the bones against their bodies. If, until now, the set has been gloomy - what would one expect in such a tale - now the stage is lit with garish greens, blues and reds. We're not in rural Norway now.  The Dutchman heads to sea, almost swallowed in waves, created from shiny black rubber, billowing with air from below. Below, as in Hades.  Senta "jumps in". No happy ending here, but all the more dramatic for that. At the very end the grey wall returns. This time, however, the woman writes "Ewartung". Hope at last.

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