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<<  -- 4 --  Malcolm Miller    THE BAYREUTH EXPERIENCE


Der Fliegender Hollander, 8 August 2005 :

The atmosphere at the Green Hill prior to the start of The Flying Dutchman was particularly exciting, the audience buzzing around the large yellow-brown brick Festspielhaus, its neo-classical pillars and porches projecting at various angles, surrounded by terraces and lawns. Perched on top of the main portal a professional photographer took pictures of the elegantly clad audience until a brass ensemble fanfare of a recognizable snippet of the opera signalled the fifteen-minute call.

Trumpeters announce each act with a Wagner fanfare
Trumpeters announce each act with a Wagner fanfare

A long queue for the cloakroom attested to the Bayreuth tradition, apparently introduced by Cosima, of performing The Flying Dutchman in a single sitting: some two and a half hours' worth of music without interval! The promise was that the artistic spell would be unbroken and tension unabated thus allowing an appreciation of the larger structure of the whole; and it really did seem as if only five minutes had transpired, so thrilling was this performance.

The start of the performance, as at the climax of a pilgrimage, was like the moment of truth approaching, the experience of the Bayreuth sound, an amazing acoustic phenomenon innovative for its time and still unique, developed by Wagner with the trusty support of King Ludwig. Certainly when Wagner settled on Bayreuth as a locus for his new base, he had known that it already boasted one of the oldest surviving Baroque theatres, dating from the 1740s. His decision to build a new opera house was thus clearly motivated by artistic reasons; the distinctive feature being the raked orchestra pit which descends into the depths beneath the stage, with the violins placed near the surface and woodwind and brass and percussion at lower levels, the sound further filtered by a hood almost covering any gap to the stage (once removed by Sir Georg Solti as an experiment in rehearsal during his season there in 1983).

The overture began: the sonority superb, silky smooth, homogenized, with rich yet sleekly streamlined strings, and edgy, clear brass; no grit but plenty of rhythmic bite. The speed and lucidity of the overture was stupendous, the woodwind mellow yet always thinned and focused. The rising and falling chromatic scales were propelled with flowing impetus, the sea swelled and the waves rolled, the sailors entered the shadowy house, eerily moving as if through walls over the large patterned carpet, reflections of which cast sea-like spots of light against the dark walls. It was to be a memorable first impression of Bayreuth.

The whole production concept was based on a system of opposite realities, ghostly and subjective versus real and objective, which the space divided through a mirror image, along the diagonal axis of a staircase rising left to right, with three large windows reflected above and below. The doppelgänger effect was followed through in the characters of the Captain and Daland, made to look alike in beard and naval uniform, as well as Senta and her silent shadow, a young girl who would appear silently on stage, and who, while being read the folktale of the Flying Dutchman by Daland, would shun any physical contact with him. As Senta becomes increasingly deluded (depicted in her nervous gestures and her nightmare hallucination about the Dutchman's ship suspended as a gigantic toy boat with the sailor's chorus as puppets), the climax is her attempted suicide, representing the wish to join the Dutchman at the end of the opera (a dramatic use of the staircase). There is thus a strong suggestion of possible child abuse by her father, resulting in projection of her feelings for him onto the look-alike Dutchman.

Though radical and even far-fetched, this rather topical interpretation was intelligently followed through in the supporting characters. Mary was portrayed as a blind old nursemaid despairing at Senta's 'madness', whose disability is symbolic of her inability to 'see' the abuse, and heightens the meaning of 'Senta' as one who has a rich inner fantasy world, in which the fictional characters come to life. The red book from which her father reads becomes a central object, from which the grown-up Senta rips pages out as if to erase a trauma, which Erik tries to make her confront in his powerful dream sequence and final pleading. The much-used staircase acts as a symbolic connecting bridge between outer reality and inner fantasy; Senta climbs to the fantasy level of the Dutchman, as at the end of her ballad, where she tears out the pages of the red storybook. During Erik's dream narration she climbs the stairs to redeem the Dutchman, bathed in red light, suggesting the red of the storybook as well as a symbol of her incestuous (real or imagined?) father-daughter relationship. At the end of the opera Erik pleads with her to come down the stairs to confront reality. Amongst the many details of lighting, is a contrast between pale eerie lighting for the fantasy, for instance the ghostly Dutch sailor's chorus, and bright light for reality, as with the Norwegian sailors. During the final quartet, Senta climbs the stage as if to join the Dutchman and jump; yet bright light returns brusquely and halts the action; she is left as if trapped in her traumatically induced psychosis. There is no redemption music and no redemption; in place of the Dutchman lying on the floor as at the very start of the opera, at the end Daland lies unable to cope with her insanity and consequences of their relationship, a powerful dramatic reversal and thus equation of roles.

Though compelling as an idea, there seemed to be present here echoes of Goetz Friedrich's historically conscious productions of the work that deal with the issue of post-war Germany and the redemption of guilt from the past. In that the child Senta has a problematic rapport with the parent, and cannot take at face value the parents' stories but projects herself into a fantasy world, it is a story of the younger German generation who need to escape the reality of the parental past, who cannot accept direct affection from the parental generation, and who are in danger of being trapped in fantasy if suppressing a level of abuse and avoiding working through the past to redeem the self.

The music was wonderfully performed, always dramatically convincing and in tune with the stage action, intrepidly paced by the conductor Marc Albrecht. In Senta's Ballad, Uta Priew as Mary sang eloquently without seeing the women's chorus, who are part of Senta's inner world and whose odd positioning off stage seemed too inaudible. Adrienne Dugger as Senta was superb vocally and dramatically, and the plunging upbeat at the start of every phrase was thrilling each time. Jaako Ryhänen's Daland was forthright and persuasive, as was the lyrical Erik of Endrik Wottrich, while Jukka Rasilainen as the Dutchman, who despite some rough edges and a few audience hisses, maintained a suspenseful characterisation. The ravishing choral singing throughout was a tribute to Eberhard Friedrich, the Bayreuth chorus master, whose efforts were also much appreciated in the finely coordinated and exhilarating choral singing in the other operas, notably the beautiful choral writing in Tannhäuser.

A curtain call - sailors' chorus and soloists in 'The Flying Dutchman'
A curtain call - sailors' chorus and soloists in 'The Flying Dutchman'


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Copyright © 25 July 2006 Malcolm Miller, London UK


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