Thursday, July 25, 2013

Bayreuth Festival Opening Night, Der fliegende Holländer

Festspielhaus, Bayreuth

July 25th, 2013

Daland - Franz-Josef Selig
Senta - Ricarda Merbeth
Erik -  Tomislav Mužek
Mary - Christa Mayer
Der Steuermann - Benjamin Bruns
Der Holländer - Samuel Youn

Conductor - Christian Thielemann
Director - Jan Philipp Gloger
Sets - Christof Hetzer
Costumes - Karin Jud
Lighting - Urs Schönebaum
Video - Martin Eidenberger

Orchestra and chorus of the Bayreuth Festival

I didn't much like Jan Philipp Gloger's staging of Der fliegende Holländer when it premiered at the Bayreuth Festival last year.
I found his decision to update the action to the present merely gratuitous and it offered no new insights.
Casting the Dutchman as a snappily-suited businessman who makes his first appearance with a trolley suitcase and a Starbucks coffee in his hand was simply gimmicky.

Admittedly, the opening scene is visually impressive: Daland and the Steersman are adrift in a small dinghy in some gigantic super-computer.
But that is as strong as the production gets.
And it's all downhill from there.

OK, there are some nice touches: the spinning scene is a factory floor where the women pack portable electric fans. And Erik is the factory's handyman and a likeable loser.
But that's about it.
Gloger's "reinterpretation" might be acceptable in an ambitious opera house somewhere in the provinces, but worthy of Bayreuth's fabled Green Hill it certainly was not.

For its first revival as opening night of the Bicentenary Bayreuth Festival, Gloger has added a few changes.
But they're primarily cosmetic -- Senta's dress is now black instead of red. And, artistic free spirit that she is, she splashes black paint on the cardboard sculpture she makes while the other factory girls sing their spinning song.
The model she makes isn't of the Dutchman's ship, either, as it was a year ago. But of the Dutchman himself, looking more than a little like an artwork by Stephan Balkenhol.
And the cardboard wings she pins on to become the Dutchman's "angel" were not the childish butterfly wings we saw last year, but larger more sinister black ones, turning her into some sort of Angel of Death.

Video projections have been added to, massive globs of black paint that dribble down the factory walls.

Maybe because I've now seen the production three times -- twice last year and once this year -- I found the storyline more coherent than on the first encounter.

The Dutchman is a businessman of limitless wealth, but suffering from existential ennui and the general emptiness of modern life, self-mutilating, bored by money and freely available sex.
Senta is the spoilt daughter of a factory owner who doesn't hesitate to pair her off with a wealthy suitor.

Nevertheless, Gloger's updating still comes across as a little trite and I left asking myself, "So what?".

Vocally, the evening was similarly unspectacular, and a long way short of festspielwürdig.
Last year's Senta, Adrianne Pieczonka, is in a completely different league to Ricarda Merbeth, who only ever sounded really comfortable in her middle range. And she has a distracting wobble.

Samuel Youn simply hasn't got the vocal clout needed for the Holländer, and his intonation was frequently off, as it had been last year, too.
Franz-Josef Selig was much more satisfactory as Daland.
But it was Tomislav Mužek as Erik and Benjamin Bruns as the Steersman who both really stood out.

Bruns' voice is light, but has a pleasant burnish to it, and his diction was always clear.
Mužek was suitably plaintive as the downtrodden Erik, a big bulky bear of a man.

It almost goes without saying in Bayreuth that it was Christian Thielemann who really stole the show.

The Dutchman, for him, is no "Sturm und Drang" piece and his orchestra never sounds brash or loud.
Every detail and dynamic is carefully and expertly shaded, but never exaggeratedly so.

It seems that Thielemann can never do wrong in Bayreuth, anyway, just as he can't in Vienna.
But he deservedly got the most rapturous reception at the end of the evening.

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