Teatro La Fenice 2022-23 Review: Der Fliegende Holländer

Anja Kampe Triumphs in Messy New Production of Wagner’s Early Work

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: © Michele Crosera)

On June 22, the Teatro La Fenice opened a new production of “Die Fliegende Holländer” in a very unconventional way that succeeded musically despite not quite reaching those same heights theatrically.

Regie Confusion

As he walked onstage to receive his applause, Marcin Lakomicki was received by some boos from the audience. One would imagine that a part of the audience’s disdain came from his surprising decision to include an intermission after the first act. Wagner’s early work is generally performed through-written and the director’s challenge is to connect the expansive and epic three-act work into something cohesive. 

Lakomicki’s opening act is stark black with a ship made out of wires that illuminates at the end with LED strips. At the back of the stage, there is a black curtain that suddenly becomes transparent to reveal a waterfall right before the Dutchman appears. The minimalism of the act works to great effect even if the singers blend right into the stage with their black garments. That said, it is also the most naturalistic of the stages.

However, this black set is completely disconnected from the Act two and three sets which are made up of a white frame with a scrim. The only connecting factors are the actors that come in and out representing what I interpreted as sirens and a double of Senta. The ship also appears at the end of the opera in the background. According to the program note, Lakomicki wanted to escape from the naturalistic world and go toward something “that was a very strong abstraction that verges on the ridiculous.”

And abstraction was what he created, to mixed results. Act two opened with the women’s chorus and Mary behind the scrim with Senta at the front of the stage looking toward an image of herself. The opening image of Senta that separated her from the women and the double was quite powerful as they created the concept of a woman who is completely separated from the real world and lives mainly in her dreams. However, that separation started to take on many forms. At one point we see a depiction of Erik’s dream and we see young girls walking in and out of the stage. That separation amounted to very little and only became a distraction. Then suddenly the doubles started to interact with the singers and fuse together. However, by the end of the opera, it seemed that Lakomicki was seemly leaving Wagner’s work and creating an abstract world for the sake of it. For a newcomer seeing this work for the first time, this is a production that will leave you with many questions and confusion about what this story is really about. The sad thing is that this is perhaps one of Wagner’s most stream-lined and simple of plots, and it’s in this simplicity that the work thrives emotionally and musically.

Great Force

Thankfully on the musical side, there was much to appreciate. The star of the evening was without a doubt Anja Kampe taking on her acclaimed interpretation of Senta. The soprano brought vulnerability to her character, giving us insight into this tormented woman through her agile singing.

The ballad that opens her evening is often difficult for sopranos as Wagner asks a singer to begin on a piano sound and slowly build. The A and B sections are repeated three times as Senta tells her story. Kampe opened her “Johohoe!” with an eerie sound that brought mystery to her character. Then as she opened “Traft ihr das Schiff I’m Meere an,” Kampe accented the opening lines with a forte/piano before entering the “Doch kann dem bleichen Manne” section. Here she sang with a delicate legato line that was flexible and in which it seemed she had all the air in the world to shape with ease. With each repetition of the A section, she poured more intensity into the opening lines and quieted down in the B section, creating a more haunting sound. She released the full intensity of her voice during the “Ich sei’s die dich durch” eventually reaching a gleaming high note.

In her ensuing duet with Erik, Kampe continued to gain an intensity in her voice that brought out more agony in her character. And when she finally sees the Dutchman in the ensuing scene, the German soprano’s timbre gained brightness and lightness. The first part of the duet is perhaps Wagner at his Bel best as he repeats the melody and builds it more each time until he reaches a climactic moment with the voices asked to reach the highest parts of their registers. Kampe spun a gorgeous piano line on “Er stecht vor mir mit” with a velvety and Italianate quality. Each phrase melted into the next. The voice eventually opened up with a shimmering sound that filled the hall with beauty. As the orchestra crescendoed, Kampe’s voice also shone. She did hold out her climactic high note for a short time as the sound hollowed out; however, this was the only instance in which she showed any sign of struggle with her higher register. The “cabaletta” portion of the duet, Kampe’s “Wohl kenn’ich Weibes heil’ge Pflicten” beamed with joy and passion. The timbre was warmer than ever but remained flexible as she sang through Wagner’s glorious legato lines.

In the final act, as Senta becomes tormented by Erik’s plea, Kampe’s voice regained a dramatic quality full of intensity, which brought her to the final “Preis deinen Engel und sein Gebot!” After such an intense performance it was no surprise that Kampe received the loudest ovation of the evening.

A Booming Voice

In the title role of the Dutchman, Samuel Youn began his opening monologue with a dark ominous timbre that evoked a haunted character. His following upper-range passage was a little unsteady as he warmed up to the formal aria portion “Wie oft in Meeres tiefsten Schlund,” during which he was able to spin legato phrases that gave his voice a more gentle quality. He was able to vary the dynamic from a pianissimo sound to a booming forte that expressed desperation. In his duet with Daland, there was a clear distinction between Youn and Franz-Josef Selig’s voices. While Selig delivered short and disconnected phrases, Youn showcased that legato romanticism that opened up to a potent upper range that rode over the immense orchestra.

In Act two, Youn’s voice could have used a warmer sound, especially in the first part of the duet where his timbre and phrasing were a little grainy and too choppy for the long lines that Wagner writes.  In many ways, his voice got lost in the immense sound of Kampe and didn’t seem to meld with hers. In the interlude, as he warns Senta, this is where Youn found comfort as he sang “Wirst du des Vaters Wahl” with an authoritative sound and phrased with flexibility.  As he repeated the melody of his opening act in the lines “Ach! konntest das Geschick du ahnen,” you could once again hear the torment from the opening act and at the end of the duet in “Ein heil’ger Balsam meinen Wunden” there was a jubilation in Youn’s performance as his booming timbre expressed.

In Act three, as he believes that Senta has betrayed him, Youn’s voice was all agony. Each phrase in the trio gained in strength all the way through his final line, “den fliegenden Holländer nennt man mich!” which was sung with ferocity.

Lyric Turned Heroic

Toby Spence made his role debut as Erik. The tenor, who began his career singing Rossini and Mozart has grown into a heldentenor while still maintaining the lyric qualities that allowed him to excel in the earlier repertoire. In his opening lines, you could hear, through his ardent singing, an Erik who was tormented by Senta’s rejection. This was furthered by his accented phrases. His voice did sound a little unsteady at the top but that quickly dissipated as he entered the “Auf hohem Felsen lag ich träumend.” In this passage, while telling Senta about his dream, he began with a light and airy voice and gained in muscularity as he progressed through the passage.  His voice erupted into a powerful fortissimo that demonstrated the anguish in Spence’s Erik.

In Act three, following the famed Steuermann chorus, Spence entered with a booming “Was musst’ich hören!” His “Greecther Gott!” was accented with gleaming high notes and a weighty sound. That led to his aria “Senta! oh Senta, leugnest du?” Here, Spence lightened his voice and delivered gorgeous pianissimo phrases. As he reached his higher notes, the voice took on a darker complexion, expressing his melancholy and grief. The brief trio allowed Spence to power over the orchestra alongside Kampe and Youn.

In the role of Daland, Franz-Josef Selig opened the opera with a rugged and grainy timbre that sounded a bit wobbly. In his duet with Youn, he relied on his emotive diction and his staccato lines that revealed dark low and booming notes. His aria in Act two, “Mögst du, mein Kind” also relied on the same staccato line from his opening duet. He kept the phrases short, which sometimes caused the line to feel disconnected. That being said, Selig gave some charm to the moment as she tenderly interacted with Kampe’s Senta.

In the role of Der Steuermann, Leonardo Cortellazzi had a gorgeous lyric tenor voice that flowed through the opera’s first solo passage. It was also impressive to see him sing as he hung from the side of the boat. Annely Peebo played Mary with youthfulness and a fresh mezzo that combined well with the opening female chorus.

In the pit, Markus Stenz conducted with great agility bringing out the wave-like textures in Wagner’s tumultuous and evocative score, while allowing lighter lyric lines to flow with similar ease. For example in the duet between the Dutchman and Senta, there was a Bel Canto-like texture that emphasized the winds and in Erik’s aria, you could hear the nostalgic quality of the orchestra. In the most dramatic sections, the string players displayed virtuosic runs that were always in synch. There was bombastic sound in the overture and in some of the brass sections but the final climactic decrescendo-crescendo was ethereal and powerful in the small venue.

The chorus was also commendable. The women’s chorus in Act two was effective and the Steuermann’s chorus in Act three was sung with power and contrast between the women’s and men’s. You could hear a more thundering sound with the men’s ensemble and a softer and sweeter one with the women’s.

All in all, if you want to see great and convincing theater, this production might not work so well for you. But if music is your aim, then this is definitely one to see.


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