Opera News (Metropolitan Opera Guild New York), 01. December 2011
It is a quirk of the opera repertory that Der Fliegende Holländer is more often produced because stage directors are attracted to the dramaturgy than because singers or audiences are clamoring for it. Martin Kušej's 2010 production from Amsterdam is the latest in a line of intelligent, sustained engagements with Wagner's text. It is a clever, almost coy subversion of the elements Wagner would have thought to be essential. There is a painting, yes, but it is a seascape, not a portrait. There are nautical costumes, but not a hint of anything else related to a ship. Senta is granted an anachronistic spinning wheel, but only as a symbol of just how far out of touch she is with her day-spa-denizen girlfriends. Kušej is primarily interested in the Dutchman–Senta relationship, so the Act II duet is the highlight of the staging. There are no fussy details; instead, much is made of whether or when he is finally going to touch her. Contact is near but averted for a long while, since she wholeheartedly desires it but won't initiate it. Finally, as if willed by the music, it happens.
Kušej's direction and Martin Zehetgruber's set designs almost pull everything together, but ultimately they are just muddled enough to be distracting. Two parallel rows of glass doors upstage seem to be part office building (with a steel security gate) and part hotel lobby where the chorus members take refuge from some sort of vacation disaster. In between them, a lap pool is eventually revealed. But are those darting men in hooded sweatshirts joggers or burglars? Eventually, too late, we realize that they are escaped members of the Dutchman's crew. (One of them dies a bloody death in the pool.) The intention behind the production, that simple things can be taken on several levels, is more fully realized by Heide Kastler's single costume for Senta: part bathrobe, part monk's cowl, part dark evening-dress, it ties a lot of ideas together. So does Catherine Naglestad's electric Senta. This is an intensely musical performance, every note sung, with her ballad thrilling because she doesn't perform it as a set piece. Strong-willed — she sings the line "I don't know what I'm doing" with bitter irony — she carries the show.
No one else is on her level, but Juha Uusitalo's Dutchman is a decidedly better singer when he is onstage with her. Robert Lloyd, days from his seventieth birthday, finds Daland to be a big stretch. (He's gotten up as the millionaire yachting dilettante Thurston Howell, so why would he covet the Dutchman's riches?) Conductor Hartmut Haenchen is equally fine in the tiny details, such as the accompaniment figures in the Daland–Dutchman duet, and the long spans.
Given that two of the most important Holländer productions — Ponnelle's 1975 San Francisco mounting, where the Steersman entered his own dream and became Erik, and Guth's recent Bayreuth rendering, about a seven-year-old girl with the biggest Daddy fixation of all time — were never filmed and released commercially, Kušej's version might have swept the DVD field. But Act III lets us down. Kušej hasn't found an equivalent, on his own terms, for the overwhelming choral climax, and he paints himself into a hopeless corner for the final two minutes. There is still not a completely satisfying Holländer on DVD. Production styles move on, but the Harry Kupfer staging for Bayreuth, filmed in 1985, retains more than documentary interest.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN