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Spellbound in Suburbia

Düsseldorf (Deutsche Oper am Rhein)
06/23/2024 -  & June 29, July 3, 6, 2024, January 23, 26, February 1, March 1, 16, April 5, 2025
Richard Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer
Michael Volle*/James Rutherford (Dutchman), Bogdan Talos*/Hans‑Peter König (Daland), Gabriela Scherer (Senta), David Fischer*/Andrés Sulbarán (Steersman), Jussi Myllys (Erik), Anna Harvey*/Katarzyna Kuncio (Mary)
Chor und Extrachor der Deutschen Oper am Rhein, Patrick Francis Chestnut (chorus master), Düsseldorfer Symphoniker, Axel Kober*/Christoph Gedschold/Harry Ogg (conductor)
Vasily Bakhatov (stage director), Zinovy Margolin (sets), Olga Shaishmelashvili (costumes), Alexander Sivaev (lighting & video), Alexander Sokolov (computer animated film design), Anna Grundmeier, Anna Melcher (dramaturgy)

M. Volle, G. Scherer (© Sandra Then)

Notable as Richard Wagner’s earliest success, Der fliegende Holländer was first performed in 1843, some time after other German Romantic operas such as Marschner’s Der Vampyr (1828) and Weber’s Der Freischütz (1821). All share a common thread in the supernatural, an important element of early Romanticism.

The story is based on Heinrich Heine’s retelling of the legend in his satirical novel Aus den Memoiren des Herren von Schnabelewopski (1831). It’s a variant of the legend of The Wandering Jew, a man cursed to wander the ocean on a damned ship, from which he may set foot ashore but once each seven years. He may only be freed from his curse if he finds a loyal woman who can truly love him. In his memoirs, Mein Leben (1870), Wagner claimed the inspiration came during a stormy crossing on the North Sea where he experienced the force of a severe storm. Indeed, the opera’s overture is possibly the best musical portrayal of the sea, alongside Debussy’s La Mer (1905).

Deutsche Oper am Rhein offered the Düsseldorf public a stimulating revision of Der fliegende Holländer. Russian director Vasily Barkhatov retold the legend of spellbound Senta’s encounter with the Dutchman in a contemporary setting, yet remained faithful to Wagner’s fundamental creation.

Barkhatov’s staging makes one question what would make a young woman obsess about a legend so passionately that she would lose touch with reality. A few productions have hinted at the influence of Mary, the coastal village’s spinster, on Senta. These productions insinuate that Mary herself had once met the Dutchman but couldn’t commit to the doomed hero, condemned to err the oceans in search of a loyal woman. Barkhatov delves deeper by introducing the notion of a sensitive soul’s propensity to feel alienation from an uncongenial society.

Transported for this production to present day Norway, we encounter Senta as a child in a small town at the movies, seeing an adventure film called Der fliegende Holländer. Senta, her parents and a score of moviegoers attend the feature facing us, the public in the opera house. The projected film is seen reverso modo by the audience in Düsseldorf’s Deutsche Oper am Rhein.

Thanks to the extensive use of videography, Barkhatov is able to transport us to a terrifying place during the overture, and at later moments in the opera. We see a doomed ship, stuck in Arctic glaciers, reminiscent of Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition. Horrifying images of men shot to death, corpses thrown overboard, cutting frozen fish for nourishment, transactions with the natives, insinuations of possible cannibalism, and most of all, we feel the freezing cold. I can attest as a Canadian that it takes someone living in the extreme North, whether Scandinavia or Russia (like the director), to properly convey this numbing, relentless cold.

In addition to this merciless cold, the brilliantly conceived movie-within-an-opera also conveyed the rough feeling of the sea. Once we’re on the Dutchman’s ship, the film’s projection of ferocious waves, combined with an up and down movement of sections of the stage, not only conveyed the violence of the high seas, but caused some seasickness among the audience.

Throughout this well-conceived video, we’re immersed in a universe of terror, a feat most productions of this opera fail to accomplish. Most stage directors shun the horror element when mounting it, perhaps deeming it intellectually facile, but above all for the challenges and expense in expressing the supernatural onstage. Barkhatov’s horror is not necessarily supernatural, but it is terror of the highest degree.

By seeing Senta at various ages repeating her moviegoing ritual, we discover that her mother is a flirtatious woman with loose morals who uses the movie theatre to meet men. Senta is repelled by her mother and escapes further into the movie, developing an obsession with its portly and manly hero. We also witness the triviality of much of the cinema’s public, either clowning around or glued to their phones and iPads. Senta rejects the platitude of her surrounding society and the debauchery of her mother to find refuge in that frightening film, Der fliegende Holländer.

One night during a projection, she goes through the silver screen. Conjuring Jeff Daniels walking out of the screen into Mia Farrow’s living room in Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), itself inspired by Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950), Senta finds herself on board the Dutchman’s vessel. She interacts with the crew, searches for the Dutchman, who embraces her and shelters her under his thick fur coat, Senta’s greatest fantasy since childhood. Although Senta doesn’t appear in the opera’s first act, her presence through this fantastical illusion doesn’t interfere with the action.

The cast of singers was first-rate. German baritone Michael Volle is possibly today’s leading Dutchman. Endowed with a virile, warm voice, he was affecting in his Act I “Die Frist ist um,” conveying the cursed Dutchman’s torment. He showed his despair in the duet with Daland, offering him treasures that were ingeniously sewn into the padding of the movie theatre’s seats. Thanks to his clear diction, his was a stirring interpretation.

Swiss soprano Gabriela Scherer was a mesmerizing Senta. Blessed with a girlish yet robust lirico spinto soprano, she emanated youth. Her constant presence on stage, mise en scène oblige, was a tour de force. I get tired just thinking of her standing and moving around the stage for the duration, let alone singing. Her clear diction made her communication and acting superlative. One was utterly convinced of her own belief in the legend. At no moment could one doubt her credulity, which made Barkhatov’s narrative completely convincing. As you will read later, her final line “Preis deinen Engel und sein Gebot! Hier steh ich, treu dir bis zum Tod!” was striking, despite the twist in the story.

Romanian bass Bogdan Talos has a suave voice and an elegant style. He is also an effective actor, but as his basso cantante is on the light side, it didn’t contrast sufficiently with Michael Volle’s baritone. The fat sound of a deeper bass is more evocative of paternal love. Nonetheless, Talos adroitly managed to convey his caring thanks to his great acting.

Finnish tenor Jussi Myllys is blessed with a sweet tenor appropriate for the role. Dramatically, he was a competent Erik, but the chaos on stage in the second and third acts hindered him from being an effectively ardent suitor.

English mezzo Anna Harvey is an outstanding actress perfectly cast in the role of Mary. Vocally, it is not a demanding role, often given to singers past their prime. But Harvey is quite young, so her resonant voice was a luxury in the role. Given her immense charisma, one would like to hear her in more substantial roles.

The chorus, an essential element of this opera, was well-prepared. Given the chaos of the last two acts, they had a challenging job which they achieved with aplomb. The Düsseldorfer Symphoniker dazzled, in a score they must be more familiar with than orchestras outside Germany. Conductor Axel Kober led his orchestra with passion and brio, adopting brisk tempi especially during the purely orchestral passages. This enhanced the visual effects of the movie projected during the overture.

This three-act opera is given without intermissions, as is the norm in German-speaking countries with serious Wagnerian traditions. This tightens up the drama and renders it more powerful. During the transition to the second act, a letter from Daland, Senta’s father, was projected on stage. In it, he asks for the help of the cinema actor who plays the Dutchman in the projected film. He explains that his daughter has been a fan since childhood, but that her admiration has turned into an unhealthy obsession. He asks him to act out being the actual character from the film in real life with the hope that Senta’s encounter with him may cure her obsession.

The second and third acts are less impressive visually as they consist of Senta’s small town Norwegian shopping mall, replete with pizzeria, kebab stand, merry‑go‑round and the movie theatre Senta has frequented since childhood. The famous spinning chorus that opens the second act is transformed into a chorus of housewives glued to their cellphones. Mary is none other than Senta’s promiscuous mother, found flirting with a senior citizen (she too has turned gray since Senta’s early viewing of the film). As for the huntsman Erik, Senta’s aspiring beau, he has morphed into the shopping mall’s security guard.

Enter the Dutchman, a famous actor in real life who hawks for a brand of mineral water. He’s also a married man with two small children. He disguises himself as the Dutchman in the film and is presented by Daland to his delighted daughter. Initially, Senta is in ecstasy, believing herself to be living out her fantasy. Alas, Papa Daland’s shock therapy doesn’t work, as Senta eventually realizes the ruse. Rather than waking from her dream world, Senta grabs the Dutchman’s thick fur coat and returns to the movie theatre, retreating to her fantasy world. Perhaps it’s a wise choice, given the stark banality of her town, its interchangeable inhabitants and its dreary stillness.

Vive la fantaisie!

Ossama el Naggar



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