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Ionarts at Large: A Flash and a Bang - Staatsoper Munich with a Spectacular Dutchman

Updated with pictures from the production - June 13. Note that the Dutchman in these pictures is Juha Uusitalo, not Wolfgang Brendel and Daland is Matti Salminen, not Kurt Rydl.

Wagner in Munich is something special. Together with Richard Strauss and, perhaps less exclusively, Handel, this composer is a house-god... treated with love - but never stale reverence. With directors like David Alden and especially Peter Konwitschny, the audience can expect that productions will be well thought out, but hardly cater to the expected. The results are, especially with Wagner, that the operas appear as alive, exciting, invigorating, and provocative. The ratio of failure to success is heavily skewed to the latter, something that can't be said of all productions that might be derided as "Regietheater."

The opera's website brags, coy and frank, that "Peter Konwitschny has already provoked audiences to delight and disgust with his spectacular Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde productions. This Munich Holländer is something you just "have" to see. A sea and see journey on the waves of the orchestra."

I have been solidly in the camp of those who have been delighted. I saw both productions some six years ago - with casts that included Kurt Moll, Waltraud Meier, Bernd Weikl, Marianna Lipovsek, etc. The Tristan performance, available on DVD, still ranks as the finest operatic experience I have ever had. The current Dutchman is bound to rival that.

available at AmazonR. Wagner, Tristan & Isolde,
Z.Mehta / P.Konwitschny / Bavarian State Opera
K.Moll, W.Meier, B.Weikl, M.Lipovsek, J.F.West

Kurt Rydl's rock-solid performance made for a sturdy and authoritative Daland, selling his daughter to the Dutchman with all the earnestness one can muster after five minutes of barter with a stranger. Said Dutchman (with touches of Pirates of the Caribbean), however, remained... erm... rather pale. Having heard Wolfgang Brendel much worse (La Traviata and Die Fledermaus from Washington still linger in my memory), I was very much positively surprised about the capable Dutchman he delivered... a role far more challenging than Altair, which he handled just fine at the Met a few months ago. In any case, the 'kids' in this opera were the highlight: Anja Kampe's Senta was no surprise for being exquisitely sung, or acted. Anyone who has seen one of her two and a half Washington Sieglindes (WNO 2003, 2007, NSO 2006) knows of her talents. Proving herself again to be one of the finest Wagnerian singers of her generation, her Senta was just right in her mix of sincere passion, otherworldly youthful naivete, and insanity.

Her hopeful and eventually disappointed boyfriend in spe Erik was the other stand out in a fine cast: Klaus Florian Vogt, who I recently admired in his excellent, mildly controversial Lohengrin on DVD, added a little heft to this role and was less detached as the Norwegian hunting-boy - and sang Erik, an otherwise peripheral figure in the drama, to the center of the action and into the hearts of the attendees. His clarion voice, less choir-boy-like than in Lohengrin, his execution effortless, his acting excellent and earthier than his narcissistic, introverted Lohengrin.

Anja Kampe, Dutchman, Photo courtesy Bayerische StaatsoperKonwitschny begins the Dutchman in a rather conventional way: Painted backdrops (with superimposed clouds, to great effect) and a stage flanked by steep rocks surprise because they are so conventional. When the Norwegian ship's gangplank is lowered from off-stage right, Daland (Kurt Rydl - Hunding in the 2003 WNO Walküre) and the Steuermann (Kevin Conners) emerge. The gangway is lifted and lowered with the waves that carry the (unseen) ship, forcing the crew/singers hold on tightly to the railing and consciously avoid motion sickness. Kevin Conners, especially, acts this out to the maximum. He tumbles about, half intoxicated, half thrown about by the waters violent swelling, finally toppling over the railing and falling four feet flat on his back, all while singing one of the finest accounts of the Steuermann arias I have heard with wonderful heft and a baritonal quality.

Conners' fall was the first sign that this production was not going to let anyone down who expects the theatrical side to be as important as the music. And something unusual to come. Sure enough, the curtains to the second scene reveals the first 'shock'. Senta's spinning room is a large, modern, white gym. And Senta and her friends are in... spinning class. One gets the pun ("Spinning Classes" are popular in Germany, as well) - but wonders if one measly play on words is sufficient reason to so alter an entire scene. That it looked much like the second act of the Mariinsky's woefully tacky Falstaff (seen in Washington last January) had me on the verge of cringing. Except that Mary - formerly her nurse, now the spinning class instructor, does tell her girls that in order to get a good husband, a gal better know how to spin well. Well, if spinning yarn was a way for a woman to promise that a household of hers would be able to avoid dearth or dependence on a husbands' income and become a more attractive wife, now a spinning-class of a different kind will ensure a woman to be a good catch. The translation of an old concept into a language of our times - the pun the clever hook. What may look silly or wilfully strange at first turns out to be a well-thought out concept to recast the point the opera wants to make in a guise that makes sense to us.

But if the second scene was visually the most glaring discrepancy from the expected and traditional, it was the third act that bore the surprise element that had audiences divided into those who left enraged and scornful and those who left speechless, touched, and awed into submission.

The un-dead Dutch crew and the Norwegians - very much alive, the latter - have their back and forth in an early 19th century industrial port, with welded iron and large gates giving a view of the sea in the back. It still looks rather modest - hardly crying out for controversy. Alas, as Senta is confronted by the Dutchman who claims that the girl can't stay faithful to him (after all he had overheard that Erik had reasonable expectations of some hanky-panky with Senta), she takes her turn toward slight insanity. (True enough, she's an odd girl. Instead of committing herself to good and down-to-earth Erik, a most eligible bachelor by all means, she has teeny-fantasies about a mythical un-dead seafarer, whose poster she has pinned up in her room. Her dreams are no more likely or realistic as would be a Jersey-girl's of marrying Robbie Williams. That the Dutchman exists is almost besides the point.) Removed from reality, she drowns herself in the fantasy of becoming the Dutchman's faithful wife - and as he leaves her (to save her from hell, in case of unfaithfulness) she's ready to show him just how faithful she will be - until death. At whatever cost.

Kampe & Uusitalo, Dutchman, Photo courtesy Bayerische StaatsoperTraditionally that is achieved by going into the water. But in Konwitschny's set there is no convenient rock to throw herself from. In her increasingly mad state of mind, she topples the barrels that are stored in the port facility. The keen eye sees the explosive sign on them. As she utters her last words - along the lines of "I'll show you how faithful I can be - until death" - she takes a candle and moves suspiciously toward the barrels. In the performance I just had time to think to myself: "Oh, no you're not going to..." And as it became clear that she was, I thought: "Well, you can't possibly can pull it off, realistically, in the theater..." And before I finished my thought, Senta holds the candle to a barrel, a lightning flash blinds me, the theater is nearly torn asunder by the thunder of the explosion, two women in front of me scream, and all the lights go out, the music stopped.

When the lights on stage go back on, dimly, the heavy cloud of smoke still billows and the cast is lined up behind a screen, immovable. The rest of the music resumes - but now no longer played by the excellent orchestra under Philippe Auguin but removed, played from an old gramophone like a grim and eerie postlude. Shock, erratic boos, speechlessness linger - before the majority breaks into ecstatic applause. (No warning of that in the program, of course - unlike in the U.S., where every use of special effects must be noted to avoid the errant lawsuit.)

Uusitalo, Conners & Salminen, Dutchman, Photo courtesy Bayerische StaatsoperI don't think I have ever been so impressed by a theatrical effect and I still can't quite figure out how they were able to pull it off without Anja Kampe and colleagues losing their hearing or hair. I saw green spots for the next 15 minutes, having looked directly at the explosion. And I regained my speech only some time after that. But effect is not everything - nor is the element of surprise, important though it is. But with Senta being quite as deranged as she is, she might indeed be the kind of woman that no longer cares whether she takes everyone else down with her self-sacrifice... which, at any rate, seems to be the choice method of theatrical suicide these days, in a troubled world. I don't suppose I'd want all my Sentas to blow themselves up - but having seen it once like this, I don't think I shall ever forget that moment. Just how emotional and deliriously touched I left the opera house is impossible to convey in words. And if it were not just a silly pun, I'd point out that most in the audience - especially those who had not come with expectations or knew much of Wagner - had been blown away. Wagner neophytes became instant converts in this superbly sung, touching, and highly dramatic Dutchman. (Wagnerians, however, canceled their subscriptions.)