19 Jun 2009

No Redemption for Munich’s Dutchman

Although there was considerable theatrical imagination on display, redemption was in critically short supply in Peter Konwitschny's production of The Flying Dutchman at Munich’s estimable Bavarian State Opera.

It all began very promisingly indeed with a realistic period setting, gorgeously painted, and with luxurious Old Dutch Masters costumes, both designs courtesy of Johannes Leiacker. I was not completely taken with the invention of the mute character “An Angel” (Christina Polzin) who somewhat tailed the leading man as a premonition of Senta, I guess, but never mind. Because, in a stunning directorial stroke, Konwitschny set the second act ladies in a gleaming white contemporary fitness center spinning class! No fooling, this really worked. Mary was the attendant who circulated and dispensed water bottles and towels.

Dutchman_Munich03.gifErik entered in a white bathrobe and slippers (apparently having taken a sauna) and it is hard to explain the rather carnal element that that visual introduced into a scene that we usually simply suffer through. And when the Dutchman arrived, completely anachronistic in his period Flemish drag, wow! Did it ever hammer home the time warp he was trapped in, and the irrational inevitability of Senta’s obsession. This was truly powerful theatre, heightened by the fine lighting design with its isolated areas by Michael Bauer.

And then…Peter lost his way. The final act took place in a harbor-side warehouse with Fest tables/benches, the Dutchman crew visibly partied stage left, and lots of metal drums filled with flammable materials crowded the stage. The face-off between the locals and the spooks, shorn of its element of surprise, looked like a lame “Dance at the Gym” confrontation from West Side Story. And in a critical artistic mis-step, after Senta’s last outburst she torched one of the storage drums, and a huge explosion blew everyone away. Everyone.


Somewhere in the far distance, perhaps on a boom box in the ladies dressing room, we faintly heard the final bars playing as the cast was revealed standing down lit and ghostly behind a scrim. Dead as door nails. Or Dutchmen. In a box, house left, a pained spectator yelled “For God’s sake, play the rest of the music!” No one shushed him. He was articulating our collective grief.

It is inconceivable that the producers allowed Wagner’s opera to be shorn of its soaring redemption at the expense of an ineffective and inappropriate theatrical effect. Nor can I conceive that a Bernstein, or Karajan, or Maazel, or Barenboim would have allowed this musical cut to happen.


Apparently, young (talented) conductor Cornelius Meister did not have such leverage. Maestro Meister is the youngest General Music Director in Germany (Heidelberg) and his star is justifiably rising. Much of his leadership was richly incisive, with well-judged tempi and fine consideration of his singers. But it has to be said that the tricky ensemble woodwind attacci were a might ragged, and the brass were too many times perfunctory. The string section however, had a fantastic night characterized by warm and accurate tutti playing.

Even a willful re-writing of the story by a bad boy stage director, however, could not steal the focus from the brilliance of Bryn Terfel’s assumption of the title role. Surely this is one of the most glorious vocal instruments currently to be heard in the lyric theatre. From his first intense sotto voce utterance, Mr. Terfel served notice that his Dutchman was more resigned than tortured, more refined than bombastic, more rounded and musical by miles than most park-and-bark Wagnerian practitioners.

That rolling, richly burnished tone poured out with ease and power, and his acting was subtle and noble. His great duet with Senta was as tender and persuasive as I have yet experienced, and his stamina and sound technique found him sounding as fresh at opera’s end as at the start. Richly colored, finely detailed, superbly shaped phrases characterized Terfel’s tremendous musicianship, and they were wedded to an easy, engaging stage presence. If we are ever searching for members of A New Golden Age (and aren’t we always?), we can start with Bryn Terfel.


He was not alone in his success. Anje Kampe served up a radiant and vocally generous Senta, building on her already fine reputation as a Sieglinde of choice. While ample in volume, and secure in all ranges and volumes, the voice is just a bit drier than, say, Hildegard Behrens, a great Senta of the recent past. Still, her restrained vibrato made Ms. Kampe’s impersonation more youthful than womanly, and that certainly was a rewarding take. Her acting was passionately committed.

Nikolai Schukoff was a very fine Erik, with plenty of thrust to his substantial, essentially lyric tenor, and a handsome and youthful stage presence. There were plenty of sparks between him and our doomed heroine. I first saw Matti Salminen’s seasoned Daland in Savonlinna some years ago and his definitive performance has only deepened over time, with very little perceptible loss in vocal allure or power. Julia Oesch contributed a handsome, securely sung Mary. Kevin Conners seems to be a local favorite, but I found his stentorian Steersman a bit longer on power than finesse. The hard-working chorus performed well under the direction of Andrés Máspero.

Can this Dutchman yet be saved? Restoring the finale Wagner wrote would be a good start. Seriously, a musically and dramatically honest re-look of Act Three could transform this otherwise inventive and rewarding production into a memorable one.

James Sohre