Maggio Musicale Fiorentino 2019 Review: Der Fliegende Holländer

By Alan Neilson

Wagner’s “DerFliegende Holländer” was one of the more eagerly awaited new productions of the Maggio Musicale, Fiorentina’s 2018-19 season. Not only is it one of only three Wagner productions scheduled for the season throughout the whole of Italy (the other two being productions of “Die Walküre” in Naples and Bari), but it also marks Fabio Luisi’s Italian Wagner debut.

True Brilliance

Luisi immediately laid down a marker with a captivating opening to the overture. Taking it a vigorous pace, infused with energy and drive, whilst at the same time carefully defining its musical shape and drawing out some wonderful playing from the brass section,  he transitioned to a more sedate and tranquil pace. The playing from the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino throughout the opening was passionate and precise. Throughout, he was assiduous in his attention to the dynamic contrasts which were accentuated to good effect. Rhythmic variations were beautifully embraced and subtle details were carefully nourished and drawn out, allowing themes to be clearly outlined and highlighted. It was a superb performance.

Although Luisi was unable to sustain the same level of excellence throughout the opera, he was rarely far away, and certain sections, such as the opening to Act three (in which the orchestra and chorus filled the auditorium with a wall of sound), certainly hit the same high standards. If there was a degree of inconsistency on the part of the orchestra, it was a result of Luisi’ need to compensate for the singers, who did not all perform to the same excellent standard.

Traditional Reading With Exquisite Support

The director for this production, Paul Curran, produced a fairly traditional reading, in a straightforward telling of the work, embracing the linear narrative and highlighting its essential features. His program notes did make some strange assertions however, especially his claim that Senta was a woman ahead of her time, prepared to assert her independence in the face of a male dominated society; that is a questionable statement when one considers that she is a ultimately woman sacrificing her life in order to redeem a man, the ultimate act of submission. He also made some passing thoughts about how the Dutchman suffers from his past utterances in the same way people do today, thanks to the internet. Fortunately, these ideas didn’t really have a massive impact on the story overall.

The use of video and computer generated imaging technology is certainly on the increase in set design, and Curran, aided by scenographer Saverio Santoliquido and the video projections of Otto Driscoll, made extensive use of video imaging in creating atmospheric and effective sets. During the overture, the image of a raging sea was projected onto a white curtain at the front of the stage, which eventually rose to reveal the crew of the Norwegian ship pulling at ropes, with images of the stormy sea projected onto the back of the stage. As the Steersman sleeps, the Flying Dutchman arrives, its image brilliantly stealing into view behind. In Act two, set in the workshop where the seamstresses work, it is possible to see the red-colored sea out of the windows and through the open door. Dramatically the most powerful scene occurred during the final act, when the ghostly crew of the Flying Dutchman appeared, accompanied by disjointed and fragmented video images of blood and scenes of horror, which were made all the more powerful by eschewing realism in favor of an expressionist collage.

The costumes, designed by Gabriella Ingram, were an interesting and colorful array of mid-20th century clothing, with two notable exceptions: the Dutchman wore black doublet and hose, from a much earlier period, reflecting the fact that he has been sailing the seas for many centuries, while Senta was dressed in an early 19th century costume, possibly a directorial conceit hinting at her struggle against 19th century attitudes towards women.

Taken together, along with David Martin Jacques lighting designs, the sets were very successful and created an excellent environment for Curran to play out his vision of the work, which may best be described as successful in part.

The one significant area in which the production fell short was in the presentation of the of role the Dutchman himself. Of course, it is no easy task, given the Dutchman’s ambivalent form, existing as he does, somewhere between the real and the supernatural worlds, to create a convincing portrait of the character. Curran appeared to aim at a figure who hovered in the real world, keeping his profile to a minimum, in order to highlight his mysterious nature. Unfortunately, this failed and simply downplayed his role to the extent that he often slipped unobserved into the background, and the drama lost a degree of it dramatic force. Nevertheless, the damage was not fatal, and Curran did enough in his work with the other characters, together with some fine choreography, notably with the chorus in the third act, to render a satisfying presentation.

A Mixed Bag

The singing was a mixture of the very good, and the dependable but cautious, although it would be wrong to suggest any of the singers performed less than adequately. Yet, the overall impression was one of inconsistency.

The role of the Dutchman was undertaken by Thomas Gazheli, who did not manage to create a satisfying portrayal although, to a large extent, this was a result of the Curran’s direction. Nevertheless, Gazheli never managed to bring enough authority to the part, and his presence was often overshadowed by other members of the cast. Moreover, his singing did not always convince, although this was not due to a lack of effort, or his vocal qualities.

In fact, Gazheli’s baritone has an attractive timbre, with rich colors in the lower and middle registers, although less so in the upper register, and he showed technical ability and flexibility in shaping the vocal line. His contribution to the Act three finale, “Erfahre das Geschick, for dem ich dich bewahr,” was notably strong as was, but to a lesser extent, his initial entrance in Act one, “Die Frist ist um, und obermals verstrichen.” However, overall, his singing tended to be overly fussy, with too many vocal inflections so that the underlying thrust of his phrasing was compromised. Moreover, he was unable to project his voice to match soprano Marjorie Owens, which meant that he occasionally disappeared. The end result was that his character was unable to generate the required dramatic impact.

The Standout

Majorie Owens, playing the role of Senta, stood out from the rest of the cast as the only singer who was really able to stamp their authority on their role. Possessing the necessary vocal qualities and requisite interpretive skills, she sang with confidence and ease, her voice certainly a good fit for the part.

Moreover she projected a strong stage presence. From her first major contribution, Senta’s Ballad at the beginning of Act two, Owens captured the audience’s attention with her formidable vocal power and the voice’s inherent beauty. This provided her with a firm foundation for its rendition, and she carefully captured Senta’s increasing hysteria against the background of its superficially happy tune. In the duets, her talent acted as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, she elevated the drama through her splendid singing. Inversely however, she exposed the vocal weaknesses in her partners: her ability to sustain notes and soar effortlessly over the orchestra meant that she also drowned out Gazheli, whilst her delightful phrasing outshone Berchtold’s earnest yet less subtle efforts.

Solid Efforts

As Senta’s father Daland, Mikhail Petrenko had a little too much presence to be effective in the role; he acted out the part with a confident swagger, looking every bit the charismatic leader of lesser men, which led to him dominating during his interactions with the Dutchman. Vocally, however, he was less forceful, sometimes a little too much so. However, he sang the part reasonably well, and grew into the role as the drama progressed. He has a flexible, even-sounding bass.

Bernhard Berchtold produced a decent performance as Erik, Senta’s earnest, self-indulgent and cowardly suitor. Berchtold’s singing, although managing to capture the essential character of Erik, erred on the side of caution, and although producing a performance full of passionate outbursts, they tended to be spirited yet unadventurous, rather than subtly rendered. His voice displayed a pleasing timbre, with an even quality across the range, and he articulated the text clearly.

As was the case with most of the singers, Timothy Oliver, playing the role of the Helmsman, gave a solid if not particularly captivating performance. The sweet timbre of his voice was nicely suited to the part, but he did not inject the necessary characterization into his singing to fully convince. His song, “Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fermented Meer,” which frames the first act, was rendered a little too conservatively, requiring a little more vocal power, but was nevertheless sung with a pleasing lyrical lilt, which sat easily on the ear.

The minor role of Mary was skillfully played by mezzo-soprano Annette Jahns. Appearing severe and seeming to lack the joys of life, she imposed a strict working environment upon the seamstresses. Her well-articulated lines were attractively crafted, although there was tendency to color the voice in a heavy-handed manner.

Certainly, one of the stars of this presentation of “Der Fliegende Holländer” was the Coro del Maggio Musicale, Fiorentino reinforced by the Coro Ars Lyrica, Pisa under the respective guidance of their Chorus masters, Lorenzo Fratini and Marco Bargagna, in what was a five star performance. Both the male chorus in Act one and the female chorus in Act two sang superbly, but it was their combined sound in Act three which really impressed: attacking their lines with gusto, their singing was vibrant and energetic and shone with an animated brilliance. Furthermore, their well-crafted choreographed movements had been thoroughly rehearsed, creating a brilliant and eye-catching mise-en-scene.

Overall, this was an inconsistent production, although with much to offer. The orchestra, under Luisi’s direction, was certainly up to the task and positively sparkled in parts. Owens’ Senta was a joy, and the chorus was simply superb. If the soloists were not always of the same standard, they nevertheless, did enough. Curran’s traditional presentation maintained interest, and the use of video imaging added considerably to the spectacle.

Moreover, it was a welcome opportunity to see a production of a Wagner opera, of which there are far too few in Italy.


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