Metropolitan Opera 2022-23 Review: Der Fliegende Holländer
Tomasz Konieczny, Elza van den Heever, Thomas Guggeis Redeem Wagner Gem in Met RevivalBy David Salazar
On May 30, 2023, the Metropolitan Opera revived François Girard’s production of “Der Fliegende Holländer” for the first time since March 2020 when… we all know what happened.
While a lot has changed since then, one thing that has remained is that this production still doesn’t match up to Girard’s best work (“Parsifal”) and even less now that he recently took out a solid, if not revelatory, take on “Lohengrin” earlier this season. Many of the things that worked for me, per my previous review, still work, but those that didn’t (primarily static blocking and one-dimensional characterizations) remain the same.
But what didn’t remain the same and in fact greatly improved on the last go-round was the casting.
The Star of the Night
While Girard makes Senta the truly central figure in this production, the opera is still titled after the Dutchman and as such, his centrality to the plot cannot be overlooked. Moreover, having a singing-actor that can manage the role is crucial to any success this opera can have. A weak Holländer makes us far less compelled by his big tragedy or by Senta’s interest in him; when one considers that Erik is asking for the same exact thing, loyalty, it is easy for a good tenor to win the audience’s sympathies over a weak portrayal of the eponymous figure. That happened in the production’s first go-round back in 2020.
And while this production’s Erik was excellent (more on that later), Tomasz Konieczny’s Holländer was on a level of his own. This was just the 14th performance at the Met in the 51-year-old’s career and his first leading role following stints as Alberich in the Ring Cycle back in 2019. Meanwhile, he has built up a career as a top Wagnerian in Europe. And from this performance, you could see why he’s so highly regarded.
Stepping into the spotlight for his opening “Die Frist ist um,” his voice trumpeted into the Met’s auditorium with aplomb. This entire opening passage, wherein he lays out his tortuous life rode above the orchestra with ferocity, but also with spite and bitterness. There was rage, but within it, you could feel his pain and his singing just seemed to grow, his diction prickly and pointed.
And then everything changed during the pianissimo “Dich frage ich, gepreisner Engel Gottes,” his voice softening to a gentle timbre. You don’t usually hear Wagnerian singers able to soften, much less float, their voices with great facility, but here was Konieczny managing a sublime mix throughout. You could feel the pain giving way to pleading. This Maestoso section builds with consistent rhythmic figures in the vocal line, ascending and then descending time and again to emphasize the Dutchman’s endless plight, his rising and falling hope; Konieczny managed to gently rise and fall from those peaks while building momentum toward the final C on “du mir zeigtest an?” The legato singing here was superlative and within the phrase’s framework, his voice never sounded aggressive or abrasive, always maintaining that gentle color.
That allowed for his sudden explosion on “Vergeb’ne Hoffnung” all the more intense because it seemed like he had reached another level in his forte singing. And it only grew from there with his interpretation of “Nur eine Hoffnung soll mir bleiben” full of fury and rage, the voice blasting over the orchestra to thrilling effect. Most bass-baritones sound taxed by the end of this passage, especially after the sequence of numerous high Es on “Tag des Gerichtes,” but Konieczny was relentless throughout and powered through to the end with such intensity, ferocity, and rhythmic precision that was characteristic of the overall musical approach. Throw in the evenness throughout his range and potent, stable high notes and there was nothing more you could ask of the singing. Konieczny’s performance of this passage was so intense and revelatory that the audience couldn’t contain itself after the orchestral coda; there were exuberant “bravo’s” throughout and the applause lasted long enough that conductor Thomas Guggeis was forced to extend the bass tremolo a bit longer than he probably wanted to in order to not have the applause cut into the next choral entrance.
In the scene with Daland, Konieczny’s Holländer was more muted, gentler in his approach; it featured some of the most vulnerable singing on the night for the Polish bass-baritone with the line “Was frommt der Schatz? Ich habe weder Weib” full of sorrow and bitterness in its soft but pointed expression. When suddenly Daland gives his word of allowing him to marry his daughter, Konieczny’s voice took on a brighter quality, the rougher edges of previous moments suddenly smoothed out.
That brings us to his big scene with Senta, the glorious duet that is launched by the Holländer’s “Wie aus der Ferne längst vergangner Zeiten.” Singing with hushed but lush legato, this was Konieszny at his most introspective and elegant, his singing mixed with longing and hope. As the passage built, his voice built up to the highest notes of the passage on “würd’ es durch solchen Engel mir zu Theil,” his sound growing in intensity but maintaining that gentility. Often, bass-baritones struggle to match the gentle qualities of the soprano in this scene, creating an emotional dissonance that undermines the entire scene. But here, Konieczny’s singing matched beautifully with the pristine polish in soprano Elza van den Heever’s soprano, creating one of the most intoxicating moments of the evening.
The ferocity we saw in that opening scene returned with a vengeance for the final trio and even more intensely in the final moments of the opera,” Du kennst mich nicht, du ahnst nicht, wer ich bin!” when the Holländer reveals himself to everyone. In these final moments, Konieczny threw caution to the wind, his voice booming into the hall with greater strength than at any other moment before that.
This was undeniably one of the best singular performances of the entire Met season. It isn’t the longest of roles and the opera itself, which runs a steady 145 minutes breezes by quickly. In a lot of performances, with his big aria coming so early on in the opera, a weaker interpretation can get lost in the sea of soprano and tenor arias and duets. But Konieczny was so fascinating from the start that, despite all the other incredible performances taking place, you couldn’t wait for him to get back on stage if only to hear him for a few moments. I would sincerely hope that when the Met decides to remount the Ring Cycle, they let him sing whatever he wants (hopefully Wotan). In all honesty, the Met should bring him back as often as possible. He’s that good.
But the other performers cannot and should not be overlooked. As Senta, Elza van den Heever delivered everything one would want from a Wagnerian singer. Clear top notes; vocal mass and volume to ride the orchestral tidal waves; rich legato that gives this music its life; towering stage presence.
This was all on display during her famed Ballad. This aria is a monster for sopranos with phrases starting right in the passaggio on G5 only to descend right away. As such, a lot of sopranos sound trepidatious to start, especially during that opening stanza. Van den Heever was anything but. She jumped right into the torrent of the aria, her voice pointed and direct as she recounted the Dutchman’s tale, her singing growing over the chromatic orchestral churn. This passage is interrupted by a Più lento one but gets repeated three times, albeit with different text, and on each reiteration, van den Heever’s voice grew in intensity and force; it helped that she was closer to the stage each time, but her singing had more potency behind it. You could feel Senta becoming increasingly enraptured by the tale, possessed by it. Only during that third iteration, where she sings “er freite alle siben Jahr,” did her voice shift toward a pianissimo color, suddenly shifting the direction of the narrative ever so slightly.
It’s the Più lento sections, “Doch kann dem bleichen Manne” and “Doch dass der arme Mann,” where the soprano was least effective; to be fair, most Wagnerian sopranos face similar difficulties. The passage is soft and meant to be in direct vocal and emotional contrast to the preceding one. It stages in the middle and lower register but then ascends right up into the passaggio, where it stays on F and G for some time; Van den Heever sang the entire passage with a gentle piano, legato sound, but was unable to float the Fs and Gs notes, ending up with a more pinched sound; while she accurately navigated the phrase unscathed, the vocal color here never quite allowed the entire passage a sense of musical freedom or comfort.
But there was no doubt that “Ich sei’s, die dich durch ihre Treu’ erlöse,” Senta’s prophetic proclamation, took flight, the soprano’s voice soaring over the orchestra, with the high A’s, in particular, flourishing gloriously into the hall. This passage would ultimately be more representative of the singing she would deliver for the rest of the evening, especially during the duet.
“Versank ich jetzt in wunderbares Träumen?” was delivered with purity of line the soprano opening with soft phrases that mirrored Konieczny’s caressing timbre. “Er steht vor mir, mit leidenvollen Zügen” is what one might imagine was Wagner’s love letter to Bellini and that vocal style (though one could argue the entirety of “Lohengrin” also fits that bill), but it’s this expansiveness of line that might give pause for most Wagnerian sopranos taking on this role. Van den Heever delivered her most exquisite legato singing here, the voice sweet in its timbre, always building, but always retaining clarity and polish from note to note. The high Bs at the climax of the piece had roundness and brightness that one is most likely to hear in bel canto specialists than in other Wagnerian singers.
Also worthy of note was her potency throughout the trio “Verloren! Ach, Verloren!” but especially during the final vocal phrase of the entire opera – Senta’s declaration “Preis’ dei nen Engel und sein Gebot!” – that features an extended A5 and then a high B natural to end it all. In these moments, van den Heever delivered with such heroic vocalism that you could understand why the entire production was aimed at spotlighting Senta as the opera’s protagonist.
Not to be overlooked was tenor Eric Cutler (in his first Met performance since 2013) as Erik, matching his cohorts vocally with truly elegant singing. Of the main characters, Erik gets two solo passages including “Mein Herz, voll Treue bis zum Sterben,” and “Willst jenes Tags du nicht dich mehr entsinnen.” Both are passionate appeals to Senta and Cutler delivered both with vocal intensity, albeit different in character. “Mein Herz” was forceful and imposing, his sound fresh and booming in this early aria. But he also managed sweet diminuendo on the F# fermatas, even adding in a gentle portamento down to the slurred D natural in the phrase that silkily launched the ensuing piano passage.
But “Willst jenes Tags du nicht dich mehr entsinnen” was altogether different in character and demeanor. More desperate emotionally, Cutler’s singing was softer, one could argue more introspective, giving the sense that Erik had already accepted his loss and was grieving it. The high notes in the initial stanza were delicately sung. “Als sich dein Arm” featured more directness and drive, allowing for the high Bb5 at the apex of the first phrase to blossom fully. The singing retained that brightness for the remainder, crescendoing throughout, Cutler’s higher ranging brilliant and vibrant all the way to the cadenza before softening into the aria’s ending. Cutler employed tasteful portamento throughout that added to his characterization, but also, like Konieczny and van den Heever, carried into the clarity in his line, his legato always polished and elegant.
As Daland, Dmitry Belosselskiy was similarly effective, particularly during his duet with Konieczny. He managed a brighter timbre in his bass with rhythmic accuracy and pinpoint diction throughout. This was also noticeable during “Mögst du, mein Kind, den fremden Mann willkommen heissen!” when he introduces Senta to the Dutchman. His bass maintained a sturdiness throughout, even if some of the lower notes didn’t quite resonate the way his mid and higher registers did.
As the Steersman, Richard Trey Smagur displayed a bright tenor though he struggled a bit with the initial ascensions to G5 on his big solo “Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer;” but as the section developed, the tenor found his footing and managed a smoother display in latter sections. In this regard, his high Bb5 was solid at the apex of the phrase.
Eve Gigliotti’s dark mezzo provided a nice counterpart to the gentle qualities of van den Heever’s singing.
One of the big reasons that this opera didn’t quite work out last time was that the Met management opted for a past-his-prime Valery Gergiev in the pit for the big production premiere. That performance survived in spite of the conductor’s erratic management of the orchestra, which often sounded like it was hanging on rather than a major player in the story.
You couldn’t pick a bigger counterpoint for this revival than 30-year-old German conductor Thomas Guggeis who, if he isn’t already a star, will certainly be one for years to come. From the very beginning of the overture, the conductor, in his Met Opera debut, exuded confidence and quality, tone painting throughout. The orchestral rumble came through with precision in that opening and the entire development, a musical collage of waves and the wind-collapsing on each other before building up again, felt like an apocalyptic battle with no end in sight. In the wrong hands, it is this “no end in sight” that can make this banger of a piece drag, but here, you couldn’t wait for the next wave to build, the momentum to lift you up emotionally more and more. Perhaps, Senta’s melody, the B-theme of the overture, did feel a bit too metrically imposed in its precision, almost as if every single note was being accented and spelled out at the moment, rather than the entire phrase being allowed to flow with each; this felt like a more appropriate approach to the march-like theme that appears at the apex of the development, which was bright and fun when it did arrive. But the climax of the overture, with its thunderous exuberance and victory couldn’t be more effusive.
Guggeis’ tone-painting didn’t lessen after the famed overture. If anything, he was at the heart of the opera’s musical triumph. Singers deserve the credit for rising to the heights they do, but in any opera, especially one by Wagner, that doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Sometimes the conductor’s job is to just support the singers, and sometimes it’s their job to actively play off and with the singers. Konieczny’s tremendous opening monologue doesn’t work without the support and participation Guggeis displayed throughout. You could feel that Konieczy was in dialogue with the orchestra, his voice building on top of it; and conversely, you felt the same was going on with Guggeis. The two were pushing each other to greater heights and therein lay the ecstasy of that experience. It was a tug-of-war, but also a collaboration. Same for van den Heever’s most potent moments or Cutler’s phrase building in his final aria. The result was that I personally found myself listening to this constant interplay between pit and singers to see how they would build the musical moments together. That isn’t to say that Guggeis didn’t have his own vision for the piece; you could feel that in the rhythmic precision that was present throughout every moment, both in the pit and on stage. You could feel it in the relentless momentum of the work, even in the stillest of moments; there was always somewhere to go musically. But unlike some conductors, who feel like they need to be reshaping the music or trying to reinvent it and then sell it as a “fresh” experience (resulting in performance as something that’s overproduced and lacking in flexibility or freedom), Guggeis’ approach felt like a combination of having a grand vision and approach, but also trusting the music to mold and form in the moment. Let’s hope that he will be a major fixture at the Met for years to come.
This is the last review I will be writing for the Met Opera’s 2022-23 season and I am happy to end it on a high note. Konieczny is one of the best Wagnerian singers on the planet and clearly still in his prime, its high-time that the Met gives him the space to do his thing. The same goes for van den Heever, Cutler, and Guggeis. Don’t miss out on this incredible musical journey.