CDs / DVDs, 02. Mai 2011
‘I think traditional Wagnerians will find it quite challenging!’ intones Robert Lloyd during cast interviews for this Blu-ray/ DVD release, without giving away whether he actually approves or disapproves of Martin Kusej’s take on Der fliegende Holländer; ‘It’s unlike any production I’ve ever been involved in.’ What is certain is that whether it’s really that challenging or not, traditional Wagnerians will not necessarily be surprised that the director doesn’t set the action in Norway (or Scotland), but the sunnier climes of the Mediterranean, aboard Daland’s cruise liner (or yacht, or ferry… we can’t be sure), the Dutchman’s crew transformed into a mysterious bunch of asylum seekers.

The production opens impressively enough, with dramatic shots of a stormy sea beneath threatening grey skies, flashes of lightning superimposed onto close-ups of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Hartmut Haenchen as they dispatch the Overture quite brilliantly. That dramatic impetus is somewhat lost, visually, when the curtain opens on the deserted lobby of a cruise ship, a single flailing fish thrashing about on a clinical white deck! This is, incidentally, the only indication that we’re on board a ship and not in some anonymous hotel foyer. Having donned their lifejackets, the panic-stricken passengers congregate on the deck. The Steersman, Oliver Ringelhahn, sings his ballad after donning a gold lamé jacket from one of the ship’s musicians.

The Dutchman appears through the glass doors and delivers his monologue ‘Die frist ist um’ in front of the passengers, who sit largely motionless, bar those who try to restrain him when he gets a bit agitated. Juha Uusitalo, looking like a glowering thug, is an impressive Dutchman, his dark bass-baritone intense, although there is a hint of strain in the upper register. He spits out the words in a declamatory way, sometimes at the expense of the musical line. As Daland, Robert Lloyd doesn’t look anything like his seventy years. Dressed in white uniform, with dapper Clark Gable moustache, shades, cigar and a silk neckerchief, he’s every inch the middle class captain, a money-grabbing materialist who would happily sell off his daughter to increase his wealth. The ‘riches’ he’s offered are a wad of notes, the results of a whip-round of the Dutchman’s crew, the price – presumably – for not calling the immigration authorities! Lloyd is in decent vocal estate, not as nasal in tone as one is used to hearing him, and he characterizes well. He and Uusitalo perform their duet effectively, a piece which always recalls Donizetti and Rossini to these ears. The male chorus sings extremely well at the conclusion to Act I, the voiceless female passengers having since departed.

Act II, which follows immediately (despite the three act synopsis provided, we’re given the version of the opera without interruption), opens in a spa or health club. There’s a swimming pool beyond the same glass doors which featured in Act I, leading one to speculate that those unfamiliar with the opera may assume we’re still on board the luxury liner. The scene is busy with towelled females receiving any number of beauty treatments, the ‘spinning chorus’ taking on added irony in that it’s only Senta, the only person not preoccupied with making herself look beautiful, who’s actually spinning. The ‘portrait’ Senta sings her ballad to is nothing more than a seascape - it’s the idea of the Dutchman she’s in love with. Catherine Naglestad might not be particularly associated with Wagner, but she’s in very good voice here. Haenchen insures that the orchestra never drowns her out and she’s permitted to sing the role without recourse to any unmusical screeching. She shades her voice beautifully in the ballad, whilst successfully depicting Senta caught up in her own world. Her acting is excellent, restrained but highly effective, much of it done with the eyes. What Kusej sets up very well is his staging is the central conflict in the opera; the Dutchman seeks ‘home’ via a wife, while Senta wants to escape from the bourgeois world in which she’s trapped. This is largely achieved through the restrained, yet intense acting from his leading pair.

Erik can often come across as a bit of a sap, but not here, Marco Jentzsch prowling around, full of menace. In a world of sailors, Erik is a hot-headed hunter, therefore something of an outsider, so it’s no great surprise that he enters, armed with a rifle and a knife, and neatly dispatches two or three of the Dutchman’s crew, unseen by the ladies within, allowing the director to indulge in much smearing of blood across the glass, plus the inevitable corpse floating in the pool, plumes of blood billowing in the shallow end. Jentzsch’s tenor has a decent ring to it, but you never fully sympathise with Erik.

What is a surprise in this staging, however, is the denouement. When the Dutchman declares his identity at his perceived betrayal, Senta doesn’t throw herself into the sea (making a belated first appearance when the glass walls finally part). If I revealed that Erik’s lurking at the side of the stage, you might guess at what happens next… The stage picture is striking here, but I’d have welcomed the sea’s presence somewhat sooner in proceedings.

Marina Prudenskaja is a plummy-toned Mary, but the Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera attack the Act III opening scene with gusto. Usually the Dutchman’s crew are off-stage, but here they are centre stage, huddled together (under temporary arrest?) while Daland’s crew party at the rear of the stage. They then try to break into the compound and issue a few beatings with baseball bats until frightened off by the zombie-like crew. Haenchen draws on his period instrument background to offer an orchestral account which never drowns his singers and keeps the tempo flowing, in a manner which recalls his very often revelatory stewardship of the Amsterdam Ring some years ago.

The sound is exemplary, as one has grown to expect from Opus Arte, as is the crystal clear picture afforded this blu-ray release. Musically, this Dutchman has much to recommend it and although the staging may dismay some, Kusej does have something valid to say about the protagonists which is worth experiencing.
Mark Pullinger