Met's New Dutchman Drowns

Dutchman set, photo @ Ken Howard
New Wagner productions around the opera world are considered Events. Expectations are usually high. The thinking is that it's hard to mount Wagner without a worthy cast, so therefore performances tend to be worthy. Francois Girard's new production of The Flying Dutchman was highly anticipated. It got the NYTimes promo treatment. Sure the original Dutchman Bryn Terfel had to withdraw because of a broken ankle but still, this should have been good.

Instead, the performance was a shipwreck. I knew we were in for a long night when in the exciting overture Valery Gergiev ambled along with no urgency. This wasn't a storm -- more like a drizzle. The brass was out of tune. Gergiev's slow, lifeless conducting hampered the entire evening. He also seemed oblivious to the singers onstage -- the coordination between the pit and the singers was non-existent.

Nikitin in the title role, photo @ Ken Howard
The vocal performances were across the board weak. Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin was a short-notice replacement for Bryn Terfel but he is an experienced Dutchman. Tonight however he started off with rough, unsteady tones, no resonance, and an inaudible lower register, and gradually lost more and more of his voice as the opera progressed. By the final act, he was running on fumes and sometimes you had to take it on a matter of faith that he was actually singing. Was he sick?

Dramatically he was wooden and disconnected. This might not have been his fault -- in Girard's conception of the role Dutchman is 100% a ghost. To drive that point home, he has no ship, and his "crew" is a weirdly-miked offstage chorus. He's also "followed" by a black shadow projection in the background. He never touches anyone in the opera and disappears as he appears -- a phantom in his own opera (pun intended).

Anja Kampe and Senta's friends, photo @ Ken Howard
Anja Kampe (Senta) is also an experienced Wagnerian who was vocally out of sorts. The basic timbre is not unpleasant. Senta's ballad had warmth and a nice dreamy quality. But the role seems to lie too high for her -- above the staff, she sounded shrill and the vibrato loosened to a wobble. The climactic high B's in the act 2 duet and finale were mere shrieks. But many sopranos have a wiry high note here and there. Kampe also did not have enough voice for the role. Just as Senta's music soared, her voice struggled to be heard. I have seen Kampe on video in many productions. What happened tonight?  Without a strong Dutchman and Senta the opera was a non-starter.

Poor Erik, photo @ Ken Howard
The supporting roles had fresher voices. Franz-Joseph Selig (Daland) was solid. All his notes could be heard. Among this cast that was an achievement. Sergey Skorokhodov (Erik) was vocally hearty. His voice even had a nice heldentenor ring. And David Portillo was okay as the Steersman. But no one goes to a Flying Dutchman for the Daland and Erik. The chorus did their usual stellar work.

The production by Francois Girard was a disappointment in every way. I was very keen on his Parsifal but this production was muddled in concept and execution.

The sets by John MacFarlane are traditional -- Daland's ship is a big actual ship. The craggy rocks of the Norwegian shore look nice and evocative. The costumes by Moritz Junge are 19th century period dress.

Girard's direction. however, makes several decisions that undercut the drama of the opera. As I mentioned earlier Dutchman is a soulless ghost in this production. There's nothing real or human about him. He has no ship, the crew is an offstage chorus, he's followed by a big blobby black shadow projection, and he never touches or makes eye contact with anyone in the opera. Even the gold coins that Dutchman offers Daland in Girard's vision is a shiny crystal that resembles the Nibelungen gold hoard. By the final act. everyone in the chorus is carrying a shiny crystal. There's a metaphor about greed being infectious in there somewhere, just not sure what this has to do with Dutchman.

Senta's girls, photo @ Ken Howard
So Dutchman is a vision of Senta right? That could work. Unfortunately, Girard gives virtually no direction to Senta. In the overture, a dancer double (called "Senta Dancer) does some modern dance moves as the music storms along. The stage is framed by a gold frame that I suppose is the portrait of Dutchman. In Setna's introductory scene she is overshadowed by her friends who are pulling on these giant ropes all during the Spinning Chorus. I get that they're "weaving" but Senta is lost in the sauce from the word go and never seems like more than a random girl onstage who sings. Girard doesn't give Kampe a chance to flesh out the character.

Even in her final scene, she is an afterthought -- instead of leaping off the cliff she is carried high by the army of friends. She leans backward (I guess to symbolize jumping off the cliff) and disappears into the crowd. In the apotheosis, Senta and Dutchman do not reunite. The ending has no excitement or emotional impact.

The Senta Dancer, photo @ Ken Howard
Girard introduces Daland's crew and Senta's friends in a realistic way. They look like, well, shipmen and seamstresses, respectively. But by the third act the shipmen and seamstresses are doing a repeat of Girard's Parsifal where they're in separate circles making stylized hand motions and rocking gestures. But whereas in Parsifal the separate male and female groups symbolized the gender segregation of the Grail here I don't know what this was supposed to mean. Carolyn Choa's choreography in Dutchman is very similar to Parsifal -- she's a big fan of this circular arm movement that looks like one tracing an hourglass.

The finale of the opera, photo @ Ken Howard
Another thing about this production is that all the singers are forced to sing very far upstage for much of the opera. The exception was Act One where Daland's ship and the rocky shores were downstage. Voices had the most resonance in Act One. But in Act Two and Three voices sounded distant and muzzled.

The Flying Dutchman was the last new production of the Met season and by far the most disappointing. Hopefully, in a few years, a stronger cast can breathe some life into Girard's production. But tonight the performance was drowned by poor vocals and weak direction. Wagner deserves better.


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