CDs / DVDs, 02. December 2011
.... The star of the show is conductor Hartmut Haenchen, who knows when to goose the score into high-dramatics (the timpani player certainly earns his fee throughout the performance), and when to ease up and let a moment drift into mystical reverie. He gets crisp work from the chorus – which is at times less-than-optimally placed onstage – and draws committed singing from a cast that no one would confuse for a Golden Age ensemble, but who get the job done. ...

Soprano Catherine Naglestad makes the deepest impression as a quietly intense, unambiguously middle-aged Senta, whose gutsy, mezzo-ish middle-voice gives way to occasionally edgy high notes, but who strikes a nice balance between dreaminess and full-on psychosis.
Her Dutchman, baritone Juha Uusitalo, is an idiosyncratic singer. As recorded here, he gives the impression of ample vocal power, though my one encounter with him in live performance (in this same opera, at the Met) revealed a much smaller voice, over-parted by Wagner’s demands. That may explain his tendency toward explosive attacks, barked-out phrasing and general straining for volume, and accounts for the thinness and wear in his upper register. Yet, though he’s not much subtler as an actor (there’s a lot of mugging and wild-eyed staring going on), he practically hurls himself into the role, and we’re never in doubt about the damage this man has taken from the high-stakes gamble he makes every seven years.
Marco Jentzsch is an unusually convincing Erik, offering a believable mix of arrested adolescence, ardor, incredulity and defensive sarcasm – which make up for a somewhat pinched and nasal tenor that (sensitively though he phrases much of his part) becomes a bit wearing. Tenor Oliver Ringelhahn’s Steersman alternates skittishness with doltish swagger, his generally sweet-toned voice not entirely masking the strain when he tries to modulate volume on his high notes.
Mezzo Marina Prudenskaja does a nice job with the tiny role of Mary (here a glammed-up and self-absorbed party girl). And it’s a pleasure to encounter veteran singer Robert Lloyd – his bass still possessing some of its accustomed velvet, though portions of it have inevitably parched a bit with age – in the role of Daland, having fun with the way the character is interpreted here as a wealthy and entitled yachtsman.
What might prove divisive about this performance is the work of stage director Martin Kušej. If viewers can accept the tone of comic irony he strikes through most of Act 1 (tourists in storm-soaked, garishly colored leisure-wear flooding into a shipside waiting-room and being serenaded by the Steersman, who steals a gold-sequined jacket from an unconscious cruise-band musician and summons a spotlight for his song), and the early scenes of Act 2 (the women’s chorus prepping for their boyfriends’ arrival with spa treatments, make-up regimens, party-clothes fittings and dips in the upstage swimming pool, while Senta sits, shrouded in black, at a lone spinning wheel, with an oil painting of a storm-tossed coastline resting against her chair), they’ll find that Kušej does some clever deconstructing and creates a potent level of atmosphere.
There’s much made of outsider status throughout the staging. Senta is a universe away from the other women in her circle – an old-world Romantic in stark black, isolated as an island in the sea of day-glo silks and taffetas, worn by giggly, superficial women she is expected to emulate. The Dutchman (in a telling visual parallel) first drifts into view as the sole, black-clad figure staggering his way among all the Hawaiian-shirted, souvenir-clutching pleasureboat passengers – completely alone in a throng of uncomprehending rubes. (Kudos to Heide Kastler, whose costume designs are cannily spot-on everywhere in this production.)
Most effective is Kušej’s treatment of the Dutchman’s crew who, in their dark, hooded jackets and sweatpants call to mind blackmarket pirates, urban gang members, homeless addicts and reaper-like angels of death – all, somehow, appropriate metaphors for figures who strike terror in the hearts of anyone who encounters them. They gather menacingly outside the bank of glass-and-steel doors that bisect the stage into upstage vs. downstage (interior vs. exterior, wild vs. controlled, insider vs. outsider) planes, then scatter like rats on a signal from the Dutchman.
In Act 2, several of them enter bleeding – caught in gunplay during criminal acts? – and die in the swimming pool, turning the water red. In an interesting bit of business, they hand over wads of cash to the Dutchman early in the opera, then steal it back from his dead body (like Senta, he is murdered by a disgusted and panicked Eric in this telling of the story), and flee from him at the final curtain. Very effective stuff and germane to the action – which doesn’t hurt.
Designer Martin Zehetgruber has supplied a striking version of what has become the archetypal stage set for any deconstructionist director worth his salt – the cold, featureless corporate space – and Reinhard Traub has lit it in suitably soulless faux-florescence. It all looks terrific in Blu-ray, and video director Joost Honselaar has done a clever job of pointing up the links between Senta’s painting of the sea and the Act 3 backdrop – which is that same painting writ large – adding a neatly crafted opening montage of storm-tossed seas and close-ups on orchestral players for the overture.
There’s a short, only mildly illuminating behind-the-scenes documentary, which strives to explain the production, but inexplicably does not include a word from Martin Kušej! No matter – his concept speaks very well for itself onstage.
Joe Banno