CDs / DVDs, 01. Juli 2011
The story of the Flying Dutchman is one of constant searching. He is doomed to spend eternity looking for redemption, for love, for a home, for belonging. Director Martin Kušej chooses to represent this story through the very contemporary but somewhat clunky metaphor of displaced people seeking a home in the West. In Kušej’s vision it is asylum seekers and refugees who most closely resemble the Dutchman’s quest, hence the Dutchman is a fixer who organises transport for these unfortunates, and his crew are black-hooded immigrants seeking to get ashore safely. The set, consisting of a mostly bare stage with a row of glass doors at the back, suggests a zone at the front for the “haves” (Daland, his crew and his family) and a zone at the back of the stage, beyond the glass doors for the “have nots”, the Dutchman’s crew of hoodies. Then, surprisingly, the situation is reversed for the final act when the Dutchman’s crew sit impassively huddled together at the front of the stage while the hedonistic westerners cavort and frolic behind a wire mesh. I guess there’s nothing wrong with it as an idea, but my main problem was that I found it fundamentally very reductive. Gone is the grandeur and passion of the Dutchman’s tragedy: instead he is reduced to a slightly tawdry international trafficker whose “death” at the end (I won’t spoil it) didn’t move me or evoke much sympathy.

More effective was the treatment of the Westerners - it seems wrong, in the context of this production, to call them Norwegians - as superficial, shallow pleasure-seekers. Daland seems to be the captain of a cruise-ship whose disgruntled passengers have become the victim of some very heavy turbulence. The Steersman pinches the glittering jacket of one of the cabaret singers when it comes to his aria in Act 1, suggesting his love of performing. Act 2 seems to be set in a health spa, complete with swimming pool, populated by bored rich ladies and WAGs in trashy costumes. Only Senta, dressed in black, stands out from the crowd and represents traditional values by carrying on her spinning, and she is ridiculed by all the others for doing so.

While the production may have holes, the singing is more than enough to carry them. The towering Dutchman of Uusitalo is outstanding. He is one of a very small number of baritones in the world today who can really make this role come off. His voice has undeniable strength and power - just listen to his revelation of his identity in Act 3 - but it is suffused with humanity throughout, its softer edge reinforcing the character’s sympathy. His great Act 1 monologue is powerful and effecting, but also deeply moving and sympathetic. Catherine Nagelstad is perhaps a surprising choice for Wagner, but her singing as Senta is a revelation. She is a wonderfully convincing dramatic soprano, and her entire interpretation builds to the climax of her final phrases in Act 3 (sung with razor-sharp precision) but her voice never becomes too steely and, like Uusitalo, hers is a character with whom the viewer can sympathise. She sings the Act 2 narrative with dramatic lyricism and the moment when she accepts the Dutchman’s proposal is thrilling. For the contribution of these two, the extended duet at the end of the second act is the highlight of the set.

In 2004 I attended a performance at the Royal Opera House which was supposed to signal Robert Lloyd’s retirement from major roles. He has clearly changed his mind as he is singing now as well as he has ever done. His Daland is strong vigorous, and even quite funny in places. Lloyd never shirks the idea that Daland is in it for the money, as his interactions with Senta and the Dutchman in Act 2 confirm, but this seems to bring more wry humour than censure. He is also a little foppish in Act 1 as the entertainment on his cruise ship goes awry, but his singing treads the line between drama and levity very well, and his sunglasses are a nice touch! Marco Jentzsch prowls around the stage like a wild animal, suggesting an element of danger to Erik, a character normally seen as a bit of a drip, though his singing has a rough edge and lacks the lyricism of his colleagues. Mary’s plummy voice sticks out a little, but the Steersman is ardent and compelling, though his humour perhaps irks a little.

Hartmut Haenchen’s pacing of the score is just right, conducting the storm scenes like psychological thrillers, while allowing the great dialogues to unfold with a clear sense of drama, and the orchestra’s playing is excellent. The choral singing is fantastic too, and they have a great time bounding around the stage in their various guises. The sound and picture quality is up to Opus Arte’s usual excellent standards and, another feature we have come to expect and enjoy from them, the staging has been very effectively re-imagined for a video audience. The waves of the sea sweep up over the title menus and the prelude is played to the backdrop of a surging storm scene. Furthermore, during the transitions the shots of the orchestra are in black and white to reinforce how separate they are from the bright, colourful vision of what is happening on stage. There is also a short (c. 20 minute) extra feature featuring interviews with the cast and staging team, which is very interesting and worth the time to view.

I enjoyed this film very much, mainly for the singing rather than the staging, though if I wanted to introduce the Dutchman to a new audience, I think I’d still point them to Harry Kupfer’s 1985 Bayreuth staging, available on Deutsche Grammophon, still with the power to astonish 25 years later.

Simon Thompson