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17 Jan 2017

Visionary Wagner - The Flying Dutchman, Finnish National Opera

An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.

Richard Wagner : The Flying Dutchman, Finnish National Opera

A review by Anne Ozorio

 

Holten connects Der fliegende Holländer to Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg and even to Parsifal by bringing out sub-texts on artistic creativity and metaphysics. And what amazing theatre this is, too, and very sensitive to the abstract cues in the music.

Just as the Overture begins quietly with woodwinds, we encounter The Dutchman (Johan Reuter) in a contemplative mood. He's in a studio, possibly a painter who makes portraits. A woman is lying on his bed. Model, lover or muse, we don't now, but as tempi increase, and the orchestra swells like the ocean, Reuter moves outside, exposed to the elements of the storm that is breaking. Huge figures loom over him, suggesting storm clouds and crashing waves. Darkened figures scurry past, like the cross- currents in the score. Back in his studio, the Dutchman is confronted by female dancers, who writhe as the music does, tantalizing him yet pulling away. The Overture reaches a crescendo, then decelerates. We glimpse the private Dutchman, as Reuter's face contorts in agony. He's having a panic attack. Far more moving, and human, than Dutchman-as-Demon.

Daland (Gregory Frank) and his crew have survived the storm unscathed. Unlike The Dutchman, Daland is a public person, who likes status and wealth. Here, he's in what might be an art gallery reception, where the rich pose. They don't actually "do" art. Amidst this sophistication, the Steuermann's song seems unsettling, too sincere and too simple to fit in with the pretentious setting. But so it should be, for the Steersman (Tuomas Katajala) represents earthier values. Significantly, in the libretto, Daland passes responsibility for his ship to the lowly sailor. "Gefahr ist nicht, doch gut ist's, wenn du wachst." He doesn't realize that the Dutchman has quietly entered the party unnoticed. Low winds and brass moan, and suddenly the Dutchman materializes and the crowd clears. "Der Frist is um", sings Reuter. Gold means nothing. "Ew'ge Vernichtung, nimm mich auf!" with intense agony. The party crowd repeat the phrase, but still don't get the full import. Daland thinks he's been through the same storm. If only he's paid attention to the music Wagner wrote around the Dutchman! He doesn't even realize what he might be letting his daughter in for. The Dutchman brings out a portrait. Drums beat in the orchestra, but Daland's laying around with his i-pad, oblivious.

The women are seen spinning, their movements reflecting the circular figures in the music though their cheerful singing parodies the infinitely grimmer cycles the Dutchman has to keep repeating. Pottery classes are middle class, producing nice objects, not necessarily functional, or artistic. Senta (Camilla Nylund) has her sights on greater things. She grabs the clay on her wheel and squishes it up into a shape that vaguely suggests a penis, reminding us that sexuality, in some form or other, is implicit in the true meaning of this opera. Shen then dons a white painter suit and paints with huge, dramatic brush strokes as she sings her keynote monologue, without missing a beat or inflection in her singing: quite a feat. The other women look on, uncomprehending. It's interesting how Wagner sets their chorus as quasi-religious chorale. Nylund jumps bodily into the painting, getting dirty. The women grab their bags, preparing to flee. Mary, (Sari Nordqvist), the only woman with individual flair, pays attention. When Erik (Mika Pojhonen) comes with roses, he flinches. Hes a land person not someone who faces the open seas. The Steersman's song is exquisitely beautiful because he lives: Erik's music is sincere, but dreams are the only time he lives in the imagination.

Senta and the Dutchman meet, and gradually their music builds up towards intense passion. In this production, we see their connection grow as the Dutchman sees a painting Senta's created. He takes out his camera, in deep appreciation. The use of a revolving stage allows the action to flow, marking the subtle gradations in their relationship. Eventually, the Dutchman and Senta end up, embracing tenderly in bed, but almost immediately the Sailors' chorus intrudes upon their dream This time, the innocent song sounds frantic, the rhythm clipped with near ostinato violence. Alcohol fuelled sexuality and fundamental antagonism between the living and the dead. This isn't a party in the normal sense. Senta sleeps on, but the Dutchman has been through this before. The nightmare's coming back, as it does every seven years. The ghostly chorus surround the bed, their faces masked and menacing, flashing their phones, to blind the Dutchman. When he's encircled, they point at him accusingly. This staging also emphasizes the way the Norwegian chorus parallel the chorus of the Dutchman's crew, and both adapt the Steersman's tune in brutal new ways. The village women dance with the Dutchman, but their coldness has a Flower Maiden surrealism. He tries to make sense by painting on them, as an artist does, but he's doomed, pursued by the singing, the music and the storm that's building up. Demonic lighting effects, sharp angles match visuals to music Modern technology can whip up cosmic storms of truly metaphysical force.

The music stills, for a moment, and the Dutchman wakes. Senta's still there, asleep. Has he broken the curse. Erik enters, scolding, showing Senta clips of their happy past on his i-phone. . For the Dutchman, the nightmare descends again. "Verloren! Ach! Verloren! Ewig verlornes Heil!" The Dutchman sets sail, in his mind. Everything's turning in dizzying circles: we see closeups of Reuter's face as if taken from a small handheld, projected across the entire stage. "Du kennst mich nicht, du ahnst nicht, wer ich bin!". Reality disintegrates. Do we see the Dutchman shoot himself We know he cannot die. But suddenly we're back in the art gallery, Senta is showing an installation she's made in which the Dutchman's last moments are preserved forever on endless tape loop. Has the Dutchman sacrificed his dreams to save Senta? Or has Senta sacrificed herself, after all, to redeem him? Nylund turns away from the crowd, and we see her, "as" Reuter, her features contorted in agony, as if her soul were disintegrating within. Is the Dutchman free, or has the curse fallen on Senta in his place ? A tantalizing but brilliant ending, which suggests that being creative is a vocation, where vision matters. Sacrifice and redemption, through art. Holten's Der fliegende Holländer is true Wagner.

Watch this production, conducted for the Finnish National Opera by John Fiore, on Opera Platform until 17th February.

Anne Ozorio

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