Monday, 13 August 2012

Holländer made to order in Bayreuth

Bayreuther Festspielhaus, 12/08/12

Der Holländer | Samuel Youn
Senta | Adrianne Pieczonka
Daland | Franz-Josef Selig
Erik | Michael König
Der Steuermann | Benjamin Bruns
Mary | Christa Mayer

Conductor | Christian Thielemann
Director | Jan Philipp Gloger



Familiarity washed over me as I watched this Dutchman, with its inordinate fondness for park and bark punctuated by would-be zany ideas without so much as a passing thought given to the organization of pretty much anything. Oh Regie, already looking like your fourth revival, I know thee well! Under the now verflogene Holender the Wiener Staatsoper routinely dished up such disjointed Wagnerian fare, exhibit A being Barrie Kosky’s Lohengrin, so outlandish in its ineptitude that Günter Krämer’s Tristan places a distant second, though after seeing this new Bayreuth production I’m inclined to think more generously of Christine Mielitz’s McMarxist Holländer.

Christof Hetzer’s set consists of an elaborate futuristic structure kitted out with flickering digital counters and prone to fancy shit breakouts of neon-lit pyrotechnics, and as an elderly German gentleman helpfully explained to me as if I were five, that’s the Frist and the sea sorted. The downside is not only that it comes at the expense of getting stuck in a bad sci-fi movie c. 1982 but also that the music and light show becomes irritating very quickly and, more glaringly, a device leaned on to distract us from the absence of meaningful interaction between the characters. The Dutchman, a frequent flyer businessman carrying cabin luggage stuffed with mysteriously luminescent cash (a new meaning for funny money?), enters in low-key fashion, the opportunities presented by the music simply squandered, to greet two men in a boat, after which the blocking is doggedly static until Mammon’s lure stirs industrial capitalist Daland into life. This becomes a fulcrum which throws the weight of the scene onto their merely plot-advancing transactional deed, with director Jan Philipp Gloger seemingly deaf to the monologue and equivocal retelling of the Dutchman’s predicament to Daland.

For the immaculately crafted metamorphosis from the rhythms of the steerman’s song to the undulating motions of the spinning chorus a self-contained platform is wheeled forward and we find ourselves in the midst of a desk fan assembly line. Having constructed a Dutchman-themed den in her corner of the factory Senta retains an individuality denied, in somewhat forced fashion, to the dehumanized drones surrounding her. There was some dodgy action with a Dutchman doll during the ballad but otherwise this and Erik’s dream was uneventful, and apart from a neat reveal for the Dutchman (amid his own shrine) the lengthy duet fell flat, with Gloger unwilling to acknowledge the point at which Senta and the Dutchman emerge from their own thoughts and address each other. Distance was maintained and not so much as a glance made (even though this production does not play with the idea of the Dutchman as Senta’s fantasy or projection) until the very end and an inexplicably gratuitous bout of lip-locking.

The sailors’ chorus is given over to a product launch for Daland’s latest fan model, with the steersman drilling his sales reps in the art of the pitch. Sabotage in the form of arson comes from the rival salesmen of the Dutchman’s crew though the tension soon subsides, of all things, into ballroom dancing. Upstage Senta has once more donned the blood-flecked cardboard angel wings of the duet and over an upstage fire ritual formalizes her attachment to the Dutchman. Following her death the curtain rises to reveal the torch she had held for him commodified into Daland’s latest product, or rather reified. Undercutting the transfiguration to make points about commodity fetishism and the tenaciousness of false consciousness emerged from no credible critique sustained throughout the opera and seemed unearned, even indulgent. How convenient also that it avoided having to deal with Senta’s sacrifice and what her transfiguration might possibly be taken to mean.

A couple of the performances were at home with the more humdrum parts of the staging: Michael König’s unspectacular Erik was forgotten practically as soon as he exited the stage, and I had expected more from one-time Vienna regular Franz-Josef Selig (Daland), whose voice and demeanour seem a great deal less commanding than they once were. The Wiener Staatsoper’s very own Benjamin Bruns was on better form than I’ve seen him recently but tended to sing the Steuermann as if giving a Schubert Lieder recital. Samuel Youn, the last-minute replacement following the mishandled Nikitin incident, was a wooden presence as the Dutchman, which may almost certainly be put down to Gloger’s sparse Personenregie, but made up for it vocally by showing off some impressive baritenoneral assets with burnished tone at the top and rich, rounded low notes. Adrianne Pieczonka was on soaringly dramatic form by the end but pushing her voice only slightly earlier in the opera had led to a good few curdled notes, and a somewhat erratic vibrato distorted her phrasing from time to time. Her ballad dragged, the urgency of Senta’s narrative and redemptive obsession never fully registering. Thielemann’s tempi were otherwise well-judged and there was a turbulence to the playing at times that might almost have come from Barenboim, though elsewhere, and Wagner’s great fondness for Johann Strauss notwithstanding, a curious Viennese dialect intruded – lilting strings, the carefree slickness of movement, and a spinning chorus close to an operetta parody – which, like excess whipped cream left lonely once one’s Sachertorte is long gone, had no integrated place in the broader sweep of his account.

On to Lohengrin then this afternoon; of course I went to Parsifal on Saturday, but will write about that later.

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