Met’s “Dutchman”: A Slow Boat Ride to Nowhere

Anja Kampe in the role of Senta in the Met production of Wagner's "Der Fliegende Holländer."
Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera

It looked good on paper. Canadian film and theater director François Girard scored a home run at his 2013 Metropolitan Opera debut with a revelatory “Parsifal” production. Wagner’s “Der Fliegende Holländer” was his long awaited follow-up. Sir Bryn Terfel was down for his local debut as Vanderdecken, the Flying Dutchman of the title, a role he sang with success in London. Respected German Wagner soprano Anja Kampe was set to make a long delayed Met debut as Senta. Valery Gergiev was conducting — well maybe that didn’t look so good, but who knows… Perhaps he would surprise us?

Unfortunately, a series of external and internal failures rendered the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Wagner’s “Der Fliegende Holländer” a total dud — perhaps the biggest disappointment of the season.

The external problems started with Terfel fracturing his leg just before starting rehearsals, which required surgery. Gergiev wangled Mariinsky bass-baritone Yevgeny Nikitin out of engagements in St. Petersburg to step in — Nikitin had been Girard’s Klingsor in the “Parsifal.” Unfortunately, Gergiev reportedly could not wangle himself into New York to conduct rehearsals until just before the final dress. Nikitin arrived sick with a cold and unable to rehearse.

The biggest internal problem was Girard’s static “park and bark” staging that gave this the feel of a semi-staged concert performance (which could have been an improvement). Girard’s production interprets Wagner’s drama as a fantasy seen through the eyes of Senta. The show curtain was one huge eye that doubled as the portrait of the titular Flying Dutchman, the legendary cursed sea captain damned to sail the ocean for centuries until he can find one pure woman who will be faithful to him.

The entire overture was staged with a dancing Senta double rolling around and gesturing in front of this eye while storm cloud projections (by Peter Flaherty) surged around her. Carolyn Choa’s choreography had very few ideas, which were spread thin over the entire seven-minute span of the overture. The concept of the opera as the fever dream of one character is not new — in 1979, the Met premiered a new Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production with this same “Wizard of Oz” framing device except that the dreamer was the Steersman. It was booed to the rafters.

It would have been not a total loss if the vocal performances were stronger. Gergiev led a listless, autopilot reading of the score with little rhythmic contrast or forward propulsion — not sloppy but dull. Nikitin, possibly still indisposed, sang weakly in the title role. His light, grainy bass-baritone lacked resonance and weight and seemed to fade away as the evening progressed. He sounded smaller than life and ordinary — anything but supernatural or sinister. Nikitin failed to project inner torment and was generally visually and emotionally disengaged.

Kampe revealed a strong stage presence with expressive textual delivery and a full, resonant middle register. But the tonal gleam and purity of her strong soprano does not extend above high A. Senta’s most ecstatic outbursts on high B’s and B-flats emerged as squally screams that were suspect in pitch. Had the Met hired Kampe 15 years ago as Sieglinde, she would have made a stronger impression.

The supporting cast did better: Mariinsky tenor Sergey Skorokhodov in the usually undercast role of Erik produced vigorous youthful Heldentenor tone and projected virile energy and intensity. Veteran bass Franz-Josef Selig brought authentic style to Daland. David Portillo’s slender tenor was occasionally pressed as the Steersman but produced sweet tones in his opening song. The Met Orchestra and Chorus acquitted themselves well despite the failures in musical and dramatic direction.

In interviews, Girard has proposed that Wagner’s 1843 German Romantic opera prefigures Wagner’s final gesamkunstwerk “Parsifal.” His Met “Flying Dutchman” production stressed symbolism, spirituality, and myth. However many of his visual motifs were lifted from Wagner’s “Der Ring das Nibelungen.” John Macfarlane’s set had not one seaside village hut visible — it was all dark sea, cloudy sky, and rocky terrain. The Act II spinning song had the female chorus twining thick rope suspended from the flies — according to Girard, they “weave the thread of Destiny.” But these were not the fateful Norns of the Ring Cycle but mundane village maidens against whom the obsessed Senta was starkly contrasted. The gold that the Dutchman offers Daland as Senta’s dowry was here glowing rocks that resembled the cursed Rhine gold. The Dutchman himself had long hair and a black tunic resembling the “Rheingold” Wotan. Moritz Junge’s costumes mostly looked timeless or ancient like they were designed for gods, not village folk.

In his music and dramaturgy, Wagner carefully delineates everyday reality clashing against the supernatural and bizarre, which is entirely absent here. The Dutchman (despite being a ghost) and Senta seemed more normal and ordinary than the sailors and villagers who surrounded them. In fact, the Dutchman’s vessel was entirely invisible — the Dutchman arrived walking on water like Jesus and the cursed ghostly sailors were simply an offstage chorus. The chorus was dressed in identical outfits performing synchronized gestures and dance moves: not individuals but some kind of faceless Terpsichorean spiritual entity like a Wagnerian cross between Shen Yun and Riverdance.

In the final apotheosis, Senta and the Dutchman were not reunited in death and the cursed ship did not disappear — Senta and the Dutchman simply walked into the massed choristers and Senta was lifted up and down to symbolize her leaping into the sea. A light change and we were done for the night. No redemption, no apotheosis.

Well, the Met saved money I hope…

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