CDs / DVDs, 16. August 2011, 16.8.2011
Artistic Quality 9/ 10 Sound Quality

Director Martin Kusej has been responsible for one of the worst Don Giovannis I've ever seen (Salzburg, 2006--Decca DVD) and the best Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (BBC--Opus Arte), so I wondered what to expect from this Netherlands Opera Dutchman, recorded in February, 2010. As it turns out, it is indeed "controversial"--it takes startling liberties and doesn't always make sense--but it's a very strong performance.

But before I get into its look and dramatic execution I must give utmost praise to conductor Hartmut Haenchen, who offers a whip-smart account of the score in the original one-act version, taking just two hours and 15 minutes. It never feels rushed but it does feel inexorable, with the orchestra playing with amazing transparency: you can hear Wagner's genius creating and growing. I don't want to call it a chamber-like approach because it is anything but delicate and miniaturized, but each instrumental section gets its due and is crystal clear; the balance between stage and pit is invariably right (bravo to the engineers as well), and somehow Haenchen manages Wagner's awkward mood/tempo changes as if they were organic.

The second act, with Erik popping in all hot and bothered, and then later, Daland, after the big duet, is normally clumsily done; here drama remains heightened. The chorus also is remarkably handled, particularly given what they have to do physically.

I can understand people despising Kusej's approach, but the care he gives to the characterizations somehow makes up for the overall approach which, as suggested above, is quirky. We are on a cruise ship, all glass doors and a deck, in modern dress. (The roomy, wall-to-wall set is by Martin Zehetsgruber and costumes are by Heide Kastler). The tourists, in true tourist outfits (floral shirts, shorts, sunglasses) are terrified of what is on the other side of the glass doors: it is the Dutchman's crew, who appear to be zombies. Well, maybe not zombies, but undesirables--like refugees from one of those unhappy countries who are being ferried to more stable places, each person with a look of desperation on his or her face. Perhaps they are asylum seekers, looking for a homeland, with a doomed captain looking for redemption and love.

The Dutchman suddenly appears--perhaps he's been lying down amid the guests--to sing "Die Frist ist um". When Daland arrives, he's a spiffily dressed tycoon and is interested in business--money changes everyone's status and the Dutchman realizes that. The second scene is set in a women's spa, with everyone except Senta in bathing suits or towels; she is in a black dress, actually has an old-fashioned spinning wheel (what is it doing in a spa?) and stares at a smallish painting of the sea and sky. (Sea and sky are projected throughout the overture as well.)

The last scene, after the weird back-and-forth of the sailors (in black, monkish, hooded clothing) and ladies, is stunning in its severity--just Senta, the Dutchman, and Erik against a background of roiling sea and sky. Senta has become part of her idealized picture. Will she remain true to the Dutchman until death? Apparently, since the shotgun-bearing Erik shoots them both dead at the curtain. Applicable or not--and each may decide for him/herself--this is a very good-looking, action-packed, thought-provoking show.

All of this would be for close to naught if the singing and dramatic commitment were any less fine than they are. Juha Uusitalo has found his ideal role in the Dutchman. His voice is big, with a distinct grain. It is not particularly beautiful but it is highly expressive, and if you think you've seen brooding, wait until you see him. His duet with Senta in Act 2 is so fraught with tension, attraction, disbelief, shock, relief, and sheer craziness that it could leave you trembling. He may be the finest Dutchman I've ever encountered.

Catherine Naglestad's Senta, almost perfectly sung, matches Uusitalo. She's clearly playing with less than a full deck from the start, but she gets stronger as the opera progresses and her vision becomes clearer and more real. I believe she sings Senta's ballad a half-tone higher than usual, which was Wagner's original conception, and the voice gleams. It is an ideally built sound, from the solid middle both up and down, and it's filled with warmth.

Tenor Marco Jentzsch, obviously a plot linchpin in Kusej's worldview of this opera, is active, involved, and sings with ringing if not always appealing tone, particularly above the staff. But he comes across as he should here, as a major player rather than an also-ran in Senta's life. Robert Lloyd proves that he still has the resources for Daland, and his mercenary outlook is in keeping with the text. There have been many better Steersmen than Olivier Ringelhahn, but Marina Prudenskaja's Mary is more appealing than most. Does she run the spa?

Picture, sound, and all production values are stunning, although there is no track-listing in the accompanying booklet (this seems to be a trend that is to be discouraged). There are three other performances of this opera on DVD; none is nearly as good as this one but Kultur's, from the Savonlinna Opera Festival (with Behrens and Grundheber) is extremely well sung. Subtitles are in English, French, German, Spanish, and Dutch. This may be odd, but it is not to be dismissed under any circumstances. It packs quite a wallop.
Robert Levine