Many directors who dabble in the lyric theatre seem to think that they know better than the librettist or composer what an opera is about. “Improvements” can range from the introduction of a new character into the drama (eg. Mariusz Treliński’s ubiquitous “Mr. O” in “Yevgeny Onegin” for the Teatr Wielki in Warsaw) to scrawling a specific word onto the set (viz. Uwe-Eric Laufenberg’s bloody “Tötet” in “Elektra” at the Wiener Staatsoper) as if a few syllables can explain the essence of a complex dramaturgy.
Regrettably, Olivier Py’s production of “Der Fliegende Holländer” for the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb comes with both of these irksome conceits. Originally seen at the Theater an der Wien in 2015, the Zagreb staging is Wagner’s original 1841 score of the cursed sea-captain’s saga which was rejected by the Paris Opéra and never performed in the composer’s lifetime. Compared to later versions such as the official Dresden premiere in 1843, the Zurich modifications in 1852 and the last revision for Vienna in 1860, changes are both obvious and minimal.
The first shock for traditional “Holländer” aficionados is that the setting is closer to Mendelssohn’s “Fingal’s Cave” than the rocky cliffs of Norway. The names of two of the protagonists are changed to what Wagner thought was more plausibly Scots, such as Daland becoming “Donald” – which is hardly the ideal patronymic in today’s troubled political waters. Erik becomes “Georg” (unfortunately pronounced “gay-org” in German) which is about as authentically Celtic as Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” brogue. Mary and Senta don’t need new name-tags and the Dutchman remains innominate. The most striking difference, however, is that the original 1841 score is played without a break in over two hours instead of the customary three acts, making rigorous Rheingold-ish demands on the orchestra.
In 1870, Wagner claimed that he was inspired by an ill-omened sea voyage early in his life to write this salty opus featuring authoritative sea shanties framing the dark legend of the Satanic sailor damned for eternity. As with much of the mercurial maestro’s assertions, historical research indicates something rather different. Before fleeing increasingly importunate creditors in Riga in 1839, Wagner had read Heinrich Heine’s satirical story “The Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski” which involved a narrator watching a play about a seaman condemned for entering into a pact with the devil. In fact, several important passages of music had already been written before Wagner absconded from Riga.
Heine was clearly the motivation for Olivier Py’s first Treliński-esque cacology, which was the introduction of an extra-textual character in the form of a distracting personification of Satan. Fortunately, this sprightly apparition doesn’t sing snippets from “Robert le Diable” but is actually a gym-buffed Beelzebub in ballet tights. Admittedly well-danced by Pavel Strasil, the disturbing figure first appears during the overture and paints his face inky black in front of an open onstage dressing-room mirror. It was as if Strasil had mistaken “Der Fliegende Holländer” for “Pagliacci.” Satan is only visible to the Dutchman (and lamentably also the audience) but the jolly nuptials in Scene three had the lithesome Lucifer gyrating with other half-naked spectral sailors and three cartoonish skeletons.
Py’s second solecism, this time reflecting Laufenberg’s penchant for didactic graffiti, has Senta scrawling the word “Erlösung” (“redemption”) on the taupe-ish walls of the constantly moving set. The irony is that this quintessential Wagnerian theme of atonement through love does not occur in the original 1841 version of “Holländer” at all. Senta and the Dutchman are simply joined in death. Even the orchestration is different. In the autograph manuscript, Wagner stipulates in his own spindly handwriting, “keine Harfen (“no harps”)” and the closing redemption motif was not added until Dresden. Despite its use in later operas (reaching an almost indecent excess of six in “Das Rheingold”) the harp was something Wagner generally disliked almost as much as bailiffs or Jews.
The drab predominantly grey wooden stage setting by Pierre-André Weitz could have been anywhere from a high fenced garden in Glamis to a perpetual motion trompe l’oeil by MC Escher. The only place it could not be was on a ship. There were hidden doors everywhere through which the protagonists passed with monotonous regularity with more surprise entries than a Feydeau farce. The maidens under Mary’s watchful eye were not busy with their spinning wheels during the “Summ und Brumm” chorus but holding a village Glee-Club choir practice.
Given the absolute avoidance of anything nautical, the Dutchman’s ship in Scene three is an enormous silver skull in which the doomed sailor can perch in the cavernous eye socket. The Dutchman’s eventual demise at sea is achieved with a black ground sheet given fluid wave-like movement by the Satan figure shaking one end of the rubbery material. There is no lemming-like leap into the briny for this Senta – she simply tiptoes into the rolling billows as if taking an afternoon dip.
The costumes, also by Pierre-André Weitz, did little to differentiate the characters. The Dutchman and Donald clearly patronize the same tailor and were identically dressed in white shirt, thin black tie, grey trousers and a grey overcoat. The sailors looked like bank clerks and Senta was attired in a voluminous black garb which could have been borrowed from Mama Lucia. Given such a confusing and essentially irrelevant stage setting, it was left to the orchestra and singers to salvage what was left of this shipwreck without a ship.
Salvaging the Shipwreck
As the drowsy Steurmann, local ensemble member Mario Filipović was the least impressive of the cast with a tendency to push anything above A natural. “Mein Mädel preis den Süd wind hoch” lacked legato and tempered phrasing. Sofia Ameli Gojić was a schoolmarmish Mary but displayed a solid round mezzo color, not to mention formidable prowess as the conductor of the rebellious ladies’ choir. Popular local tenor Tomislav Mužek was an excellent Georg. Although a tad more Birnam forest than innervated huntsman, Mužek brought a bright, forward placed timbre to the role which sounded more Italianate than Teutonic. Given the all-pervasive Italian presence in the opera world of Paris in the 1830s, with Donizetti as “le roi du théâtre,” such a vocal quality was not inappropriate. A ringing top and even legato gave “Mein Herz voll Treue” real force and the demanding “Willst jenes Tages” cavatina with its high B flat on “Liebe” was sung with precision and élan. The frequent turns and mordents were immaculately executed. Mužek was also dramatically credible and his anguish at Senta’s fateful obsession for the Dutchman was palpable.
Another local lad, bass Luciano Batinić sang a slightly detached Donald. The underlying opportunism and avariciousness of the old merchant was largely glossed over, which was understandable given that the Dutchman’s trove of “rarest treasures”, “precious stones” and “priceless pearls” was no more than a few fluttering notes of Monopoly money. Vocally Batinić was stronger in the upper register with a fine top E flat during the duet with the Dutchman. There was infectious oomphy rhythmic singing in “Mögst du, mein Kind.”
Not just because of his passport, Dutch baritone Bastiaan Everink was an ideal, dramatically committed and vocally outstanding Holländer. This is a singer with a fascinating past as a former member of the Dutch army turned heldenbariton after entertaining the troops with Sinatra songs in the barracks. Everink’s sympathetic characterization was more that of a good man burdened with sorrow at having made a hopeless bargain with the Devil. The temptation to play the part as a Vaudevillian sea-faring psycho was skillfully avoided. This Dutchman is not at all fazed by Satan’s unwelcome presence – in fact before “Verloren” he almost treads the Gollum-ish form into the ground. There were many moments to savor in Everink’s performance as a result of a truly refulgent top register coupled with exemplary diction. From the first lento E sharp recitative on “Die Frist ist um” it was clear that this was a Holländer of remarkable resonance and with a rich round Wagner baritone timbre. “Wirst du des Vaters’ Wahl nicht Schelten?” was moving in its lyricism and the top E naturals on “Würd’es durch solchen Engel” heroic and pristine. The extended range in “Wie oft in Meeres tiefsten Schlund” from top F to low B was as secure at the extremities as in Everink’s mellifluous middle register.
The real triumph of the evening, however, was Melanie Diener’s portrayal of Senta. Despite the Kostelnička costuming and distracting stage direction of running in and out of doors with the rapidity of a ditsy Tupperware sales-girl, Diener displayed an astonishing vocal quality with absolutely effortless top B flats and B naturals, putting the German soprano in the same league as the great Sentas of the past. The voice is Nilsson-esque in size and volume and cut through the tsumani of orchestral sound like an intonated torpedo.
An important major musical change in the original version is that Senta’s ballade was written in the key of A minor. At the premiere in Dresden in 1843, the celebrated soprano (and fellow part-time political agitator) Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient was unable to manage the punishing high tessitura of the scena and Wagner agreed to transpose it down a tone to G minor – a practice which is generally followed today in the three-act version. Unlike Madame Schröder-Devrient, Diener sailed through the multiple top A naturals, sustained G’s and riveting top B natural of the ballade without a soupçon of strain or stridency. This was in all respects a tour-de-force performance and hard to believe that it was Diener’s first attempt at the role. Undoubtedly there will be many more.
Raising the Dead
The combined Zagreb chorus of over 50 choristers sang with an enthusiasm and exuberance which would be considered first-rate in any major opera house. Tenors were especially impressive and the multiple high B flats truly clarion. “Steuermann! Lass die Wacht!” was sung with enough decibels to raise the soon to be dead, and the accompanying stompy stamping on the down-beats hard and hefty. Diction was uniformly crisp and clear.
Octogenarian Croatian maestro Nikša Baresa is no stranger to Wagner’s meisterwerken having had a distinguished career conducting such repertoire at La Scala, the Wiener Staatsoper, St Petersburg and a significant number of leading opera houses around the world. He has also been responsible for bringing original versions of well-known operas such as “Don Carlo” to Croatia for the first time. Although there were a number of disquieting fluffed notes and imprecise intonation from the ever-present horns and occasional false entries in general, this was a reading which brought out the full ferocity of Wagner’s first great opus. There may have been nothing nautical on the stage, but the pit was seething with oceanic sturm und drang. Trombones and tuba fared better, first oboe was particularly poignant in the andante passage of the overture and flutes and piccolo suitably chirpy in the animato passages, many of which are reminiscent of the music of Albert Lortzing. Baresa’s baton technique was unambiguously clear and his attention to the dynamic graduations and constant changes of rhythm in this extremely difficult score was exemplary. The musicians survived the grueling uninterrupted playing with admirable commitment and obvious enthusiasm.
For all the shortcomings in the staging and direction, the true “Erlösung” of the evening came from the outstanding chorus, superb soloists and exceptional musicianship of Nikša Baresa.