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Bayreuth 2012: Dutchman, Faltering Captain of Industry

The Bayreuth Festival remains a myth, people come in droves, every show is filled to the last seat. But since being forced by a German court to open the books on ticket distribution—much and mostly to the chagrin of American Wagner Societies—anyone who requested entry to the vaunted halls seems to have got as much or more in tickets than they bargained for. Assuming those who used to got gray-market tickets (i.e. by donating to their local Wagner Society) stoop to requesting through the normal channels, the eight-year waiting-list that helps so much in the myth-building, might yet remain intact.

It also helps in making Bayreuth a little more accessible that the productions have been increasingly more miss than hit (or at least perceived as such), which is difficult to sustain for a festival that habitually serves modern productions to a fairly conservative audience: Daring, modern, or re-interpreted failure is more acutely felt by those patrons, than boring, traditional, and inoffensive failure.

Failure, incidentally, is a natural and necessary byproduct of producing good opera and trying to keep the taxidermists at bay (“If I can’t tell from looking at the set which opera it is, I know it must be a bad production”). Naturally not every risk taken pays off with epic success like the Chereau’s centennial Ring (much maligned at first, now rightly and universally hailed as the Ring of Rings), superbly intelligent theater like Stefan Herheim’s Parsifal (the finest production Bayreuth has seen in decades), or accidentally ingenious de- and re-constructions like Katharina Wagner’s Meistersinger (a minor miracle where the product seems possibly cleverer than its creator’s intentions). But amid all the natural risks, there are unknown unknowns and known unknowns (™ Donald Rumsfeld). One such known unknown is hiring a director so young (*1981) and inexperienced that he had but one opera production under his belt (a Le Nozze di Figaro in Augsburg) by the time he was asked to produce Bayreuth’s new Flying Dutchman.

In his interview with Klaus J. Kalchschmid (2012 Friends of Bayreuth Almanac) the head of drama at the Mainz State Theater Jan Philipp Gloger comes across as something of a brat; choc-full of opinions, facts optional. But there was something he said that spelled out great promise for his Dutchman, or indeed any opera production of his: “I have to find something from my world in [an] opera, which is why I consider myself a translator. I don’t need to deconstruct a work—I much rather get to work like an archeologist.”

That approach of translating the meaning and core idea of an opera (all presuming it has one) into a vernacular intuitively understood by the necessarily contemporary audience (although in a sea of purple hair, one is tempted from time to time to question whether the audience is in fact still contemporary), is the principal ingredient of a successful opera production… the others being intelligence, a sensitive Personenregie, and musical understanding.

As a theater director Gloger ought to know all about blocking and Personenregie, and he is said to be very musical, able to read the scores and illustrate his points on the piano. To his intelligence I cannot speak, but even if we were to cruelly assume he is more willing than able in the noggin, three out of four ain’t bad! What a pity that such fair hopes don’t materialize on stage: What an emasculated dud this Dutchman is!

It begins promisingly enough: The curtain stays down during the overture. Perhaps he was encouraged during the abovementioned interview to just let the music work on the imagination of the audience, which it does plenty well. Better that, than some half baked idea to illustrate the overture, only because most other directors feel like they have to. Kudos.

JPG: The storm-music of the overture has such an enormous force… how am I ever supposed to find any pictures for that?
KJK: You don’t have to illustrate the overture…
JPG: No, I don’t have to, true…

When the curtain does open, the set by Christof Hetzer is a stunning black wall of shapely curves (that may, or may not suggest the prow of a huge ship), lit by strings of electronic connectors and nodes that suggest infinite black behind them. It’s one third disco in an oversized, dissected microchip, and two thirds Tron (1982), and the lights twitch along the interconnections in absolutely exact correlation with the music.

Daland and his steersman—Franz-Josef Selig and Benjamin Bruns—help that fine impression. Singing from a little tilting skiff on the polished black floor, they don’t just make a well-directed impression, their voices, too, are splendid… much better than what the broadcast of the premiere had suggested. Unfortunately, that’s vocally and dramatically as good as this Dutchman gets. The Dutchman of Samuel Youn, who had to jump in at short notice (see “Bayreuth and its Swastikas”), is a businessman (with a hint of techno-zombie, like his crew) caught in the storm of high finance and restless dealing and wheeling, wandering about with his trolley and constantly being bribed by extras. A restless captain of industry, if you will. It’s easy to see how the grittier, rougher persona of Nikitin would have brought some much needed tension to the production, but hard to see how such a welcome nuance could have saved it.

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Flying Dutchman,
F.Konwitschny / Staatskapelle Berlin
D.F.Dieskau, G.Frick, F.Wunderlich et al.
Eterna / Berlin Classics

When a mobile platform with an intimated factory rolls unto the stage for the spinning scene, interest in the development of the characters is zapped. Only a few comic and dramatic touches remain notable, such as the Daland’s interruptions of Senta and the Dutchman, or when the Dutchman starts bleeding exactly as Senta stabs herself for mutual redemption.

The spinning-ladies in the factory are assembling desk fans, or rather: handing them from stage left to right, winding the power cable around the base, and plopping them into boxes. It’s a superficial reference to ‘rotating things’, entirely devoid of the profundity with which Konwitschny’s Munich Dutchman combines a witty play on words and deeper meaning. Nor is the ‘big-bad capitalism’ line of thinking spun any further, because the commercialism of the Duty Free bag-clutching, empty-glasses- wielding seamen and the happy, carefree 70s factory ladies with their deliberately camp, stylized gestures of a 1930s Broadway show, are as superficial as, presumably, Gloger’s view of world finance.

Amid the cardboard box idyll, Adrianne Pieczonka stands, sings, and acts as static as the figurine atop a wedding cake, rarely moving (in both senses of the word), and occasionally unable to cope with the slow tempi in her arias. Her voice had a hard time getting off the stage, much like her acting didn’t take flight, despite the bloodied angel-wings she crafted out of those boxes. Her partner in salvation, Youn, similarly proved himself capable without excelling or making the text audible.

The figure of Erik is either neglected or outright misunderstood: Casting a struggling power-tenor of hefty built as Erik (Michael König), unflatteringly dressed, and made out to look like a lowly janitor who spends his leisure time with Zelda, Dungeons & Dragons, and masturbation, it makes it too easy—indeed natural—for Senta to ignore him. That undermines the whole point of the figure of Erik, which is supposed to represent at least superficially the much more logical, eligible choice for Senta (steady income as a huntsman, not dangerously sea-bound like most men in the society) than Senta’s teeny-fantasies of the Holländer.

All of the above make for a production that’s ‘all right’, which really is the worst kind of boring—neither enthralling nor outraging… and incredibly, instantly forgettable. Too much of the production feels like a tame rehashing of Calixto Bieito’s Stuttgart production, just without the incredibly remarkable moments, like that of the Dutchman’s chorus responds: devastating and maddening with Bieito, dull and thin with Gloger. One expects more from any director in Bayreuth, but especially from a theater director intent on “translating”, however young and inexperienced. The best part just about salvaged the evening, though: The orchestra and its responsiveness to Christian Thielemann’s very light touch. A very quick overture was foot-tapping material—impetuous, not a slow motion storm. Elsewhere his vastly varying tempi livened the Dutchman up, but without those changes being very noticeable.