Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer is a key work to understand German Romanticism, a richly orchestrated score of sophisticated musical invention and dramatic impact. Yet, it is not staged as often as one would guess. Why? The immediate answer is that the two main roles are impossibly difficult. It is also quite testing for the orchestra – but one could make similar observations of operas like Tristan und Isolde or Götterdämmerung, which are nonetheless more frequent in opera houses’ seasons.
I would add that Der Fliegende Holländer is also difficult to stage. Even if you have a low budget and go Regie, if you don’t provide any kind of “special effect”, then it’s going to be a colossal debacle anyway. In his 2012 production for the Opernhaus Zürich, Andreas Homoki never forgets that. He has throwed ships, spinning wheels, fjords etc away, but there are plenty of spooky tricks to keep up with Wagner’s diminished seventh chords. Homoki explains he decided to stage his Holländer onshore – and so he does. Daland has a trading company and his instructions to his crew are here translated into telephonic communication with his ships at sea. However, whenever Wagner’s orchestra suggests sea tempests, everybody on stage falls to the ground as in they were on a ship. So, again, could we make a decision here? Aboard or onshore? Later I understood that the chorus has to remain onstage longer than what Wagner intended because they are supposed to screen the Holländer’s “magical” appearances and disappearances. So it is rather a convenience than an aim in itself. And one can see that. Also, the pre-war English setting is atmospheric and goes well with the story, but the association with the burdens of colonial system is a bit far-fetched. We see maps of Africa, Daland has an African servant and, when the Flying Dutchman’s ghostly crews is supposed to appear, the African servant is turned in a warrior and mysterious arrows kill Daland’s employees. This could be an interesting approach – Daland is in Europe and sees only the profits of colonial enterprise, while the Dutchman could be someone plagued by the actual heart-of-darkness experience of colonial oppression who cannot redeem himself. He does not fit anymore in the blood-stained welfare of his civilized surroundings. But this is not the story we see here – the Dutchman is pretty much concerned about himself and the African qualms are just added upon his plot.
The Opernhaus Zürich made a point, in this production, of trying to revive “the original version” of the score. In the program book, they acknowledge that Wagner has done so much retouching in so many instances that it is actually impossible to speak of one “original” version, but roughly speaking we had no intermission, the acts linked to each other by interludes and no redemption music in the end. Orchestration issues has been dealt with case by case. Maestro Alain Altinoglu seemed concerned with the large orchestral sound prescribed by Wagner and made a point in keeping his musicians in leash. As a result, strings were often on the thin side and crescendo passages had very little development. The sound picture was often band-like, robbing this music of momentum and nobility. In terms of tempo, the conductor made it fast and animated (sometimes making it difficult for the chorus to articulate the text) – but without weight of sound, the final impression had more to do with bounciness than suspense.
Although Anja Kampe was severely tested by high-lying passages (especially in the end of the first part of her duet with the Dutchman), her Senta was richly, sensitively and touchingly sung. It is a hard piece of singing – and there is no perfect Senta, even in recordings – but that did not prevent this German soprano of making this music hers. In what regard tenors, Marco Jentzsch’s singing is the opposite of ingratiating and the Steersman was too light-toned for his role. It is almost a miracle that Matti Salminen still holds his own as Daland. Now many passages are more spoken than sung, but he does it with such naturalness and conviction that you almost believes that this is supposed to be done that way. Last but not least, Bryn Terfel may not be the most voluminous or dark-toned (his high notes often sounded strangely bright in an almost tenor-ish way) Holländer in one’s experience, but he sings it with such commitment, tonal variety, clarity of diction and imagination that you can’t help taking his side. Even in the end, when his voice started to grate a bit, such was his engagement that you felt ready to see in it the Holländer’s and not the singer’s exhaustion. Thanks to him and Anja Kampe, this performance would intermittently rise above routine into something truly exciting and special.