Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Flying Ship of Immigrants

(WARNING: I should probably be more careful about what I write, but count on me for my honest opinion)

I went last night to see my first "Flying Dutchman" live at the Netherlands Opera. It was my first time inside this strange modern opera house that is referred to here as the "stopera" because the building also is the State House for the city of Amsterdam, and they combine "state" and "opera" to get "stopera". It is actually a lovely theater with 1500 seats, but feeling much more cozy. We were happy to be there as the guest of the chorus master Martin Wright for this dress rehearsal.

I was surprised how muted such a large orchestra could be, but it allowed the singers to be vastly more expressive. All in all the orchestra sounded fantastic, particularly in the opening of the third act when joined by the tremendous Netherlands Opera Chorus, it was thrilling I have to say. Also thrilling was the decision to perform the entire opera without intermission the way Wagner had intended. It flew by (no punn intended), and was much more exciting this way.

Unfortunately there was the production with which to contend. The director was an Austrian named Martin KuĊĦej. He has apparently done a fantastic Lady Macbeth here, that I wish I had seen. This however...

He had a unit set, which is understandable with no intermissions to change things around, and I actually liked the potential in the set, though the lighting was uninspired. The concept was that the Dutchman's was a ship of dark (as in Arab and black and the occaisional Asian) "others". Senta apparently had a thing for "others", while all the rest of the women were pretentious desperate housewife types, and Erik went around murdering the immigrants. In the final act the crowd tried to attack the ship of immigrants and finally Erik goes mad with hatred for immigrants, and shoots both the Dutchman and Senta.

Now, as you know, I am all for concepts and especially polemical concepts (particularly when they deal with some of the frankly racist policies popping up now in Europe against immigrant communities). But, unfortunately for Kusej, the devil is in the details. One has to stand by their concept completely, and one needs the basic directing chops to see it through. The most obvious problem was that the Dutchman was still a caucasian, which was explained away by saying he was just the captian of a ship of immigrants, but wasn't one himself. Frankly to me that seemed weak, and it smelled like they couldn't find a darker skinned singer to sing the role. Beyond that there was A LOT of just basic bad direction (ie. stand and sing, actors that talk to each other but don't look at each other, and not for any good reason; and scenes that go on and on without any real action). Concepts are great, but what makes the firs generation of concept directors great is that they were also directors. There was basically no direction for the singers here. Also the point was extremely heavily handed. All the white people in bright colors, and all the immigrants in blacks, including Senta who apparently liked immigants so much she already dressed in all black before they arrived.

Finally, the decision to have the Dutchman turn out not to be an immortal ghost, and instead be someone that could be killed by Erik's bullet, proved problematic to say the least. Why didn't the Dutchman just kill himself to begin with? And he dies before Senta, which makes her death completely useless. He is supposed to be redeemed by her death. I'm all for altered endings, but the problem here is that Wagner has shoved the Dutchman's musical theme down the audience's throat for about three hours at this point, with its dissonant final cadence. This is the first time in the opera that the theme arrives in a wonderful consonant harmony (a foreshadowing of Tristan in more than a few ways). SOMETHING has to happen, there has to be some redemption even in death. Here it was anti-climactic at best.

Ah well, the whole thing was worth it a thousand times over to hear Catherine Naglestad as Senta. She was stupendous, and I was blown away. She is probably the second most affecting dramatic soprano I've ever heard live, next to Waltraud Meier. What I loved is how subtle her voice could be in this rep. She sang it almost like bel-canto, with stunning pianos and messa di voce, even the occaisional arresting straight tone. It was absolutely stunning. So, all is well that ends well!

I will be seeing the Reis Opera's "Ballo" in Tuesday, and then at the Netherlands Opera again on Wednesday to see "La Nozze di Figaro" set in an automobile dealership...hmmmm, I need convincing.

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