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Easter WETA Redux No.1

Fresh back from a Easter Parsifal performance (review forthcoming), I figure it seems only (in)appropriate, on this Easter Sunday, to resurrect the two meandering 'Easter Pilgrimage bits' I wrote for WETA in 2008... which was a wonderful trip through Europe with the goal of getting as many Parsifal and Matthew Passion performances into a fortnight. (An unforeseen link: Attila Jun, then a Dutchman in Stuttgart, filled in this night as Gurnemanz.)

Easter Pilgrimage – Dutchman Detour

Classical WETA, Wednesday, 4.2.08

On the way from Amsterdam to Vienna, the Easter Pilgrimage of Matthew Passions and Parsifals I also picked up two performances of less topically related Wagner works: The Flying Dutchman in Stuttgart and Tristan & Isolde in Vienna.

Of course, just about any Wagner opera can be made to fit Easter without straining too much, given the abundance of death through redemption and redemption through compassion (and more death). Senta and Isolde, the Dutchman and Tristan: Surely there is room in their stories to see (or force) analogies to “The Greatest Story Ever Told”.

This is certainly not what Calixto Bieito sees in the Dutchman for his new production at the Staatsoper Stuttgart. Instead, Bieito takes it to be an allegory of isolation in modern society, a critique of the economic system, consumer culture, and essentially a critique of a loss of values and morality. As expected, Bieito does this in his trademark brash, genital-touting style that sells out opera houses, enrages critics, and sends – especially North American – commentators into apoplectic fits of “Eurotrash” bashing. In doing so the culture-pundits often are guilty of precisely what they fault Bieito and his ilk with: They get stuck at superficialities, unable or unwilling

to look for meaning or sense wherever hidden, obscured, or disguised.

The results are reviews, not criticism: descriptions with a liberal dose of opinion but devoid of intellectual effort beyond the aesthetic offense taken; devoid of the minimum modicum of charity that should meet even the (seemingly) worst or preposterous production. After all, artistic failure is not failure to please a reviewer’s aesthetic or failure to cater to a reviewer’s ideological or political predispositions. Artistic failure would be if the undertaking were to fail to communicate at all, or if the reasoning behind it were flawed or indeterminable.

This is giving directors a lot of credit, I suppose, but this credit is likely deserved on account of effort and thought put into the productions – which in turn is necessary to maintain a vibrant artistic and intellectual environment in the opera world. Everything else is playing into the hands of the opera-as-museum crowd that embraces pseudo-historicism, fancy costumes, and elaborate “realistic” sets. Which, were it the exclusive way to approach opera, would suffocate the art in no time.

This is not saying that anything modern or outrageous need be embraced or liked. Chances are, after all, that any daring attempt to reinvigorate a classic work of art will result in failure. But the claim, as I often read, that the director in question understands nothing of the subject or “isn’t fit to shine the composer’s shoes” is an inept response, no matter how tempting.

Bieito, even though his Dutchman is comparatively tame when judged against his previous productions with which he has achieved fame and infamy (the Dutchman features only very little full frontal nudity and only one cross-dressing demon-midget), needs that benevolence in at least one way: His heavy-handed critique of consumerism and modern capitalism is a cross between naïveté and an insufficient grasp of economic matters. Then again, since he shares that with the majority of European electorates, it would be churlish to chide him too much over this. And of course Wagner brandished his own, genuine if exotic, idea of socialism at the time of writing the Dutchman.

Much more interesting is Bieito’s take on the Dutchman as lost in moral relativism, in search of values—traditional values like faith and fidelity. The insistence that economic liberalism is responsible for an—allegedly corresponding—moral decline, is a major liability for his approach. The two have nothing intrinsically in common; there is no relation of cause and effect. But that misperception is not enough to sink this Dutchman.

The less than subtle interpretive touches applied to this Dutchman include the projection of the comically insipid motivational slogans ever-present in the North American workplace (how much the German audience got from that I don’t know). The generous program booklet is designed to look like a Master Card, with every page a bank account statement. The seamen’s women bring their sailors gifts—loads of consumer electronics—for the ribald drinking session in the third scene.

Bieito’s Dutchman, meanwhile, is stuck not on the ocean but in some temple of consumerism. Maybe an airport—as happened to Bieito when he got the idea for this interpretation—maybe a mall. (Having been stuck in a department store—seemingly without exits, elevators to nowhere, and hidden escalators—in Paris just two days before, I felt some sympathy for this reading.)

His crew are investment banker types, ruthlessly throwing over board (of a small red rubber rafting boat) everyone unable to keep up with the winnings and earnings frenzy. The Holländer (Yalun Zhang) is isolated, disillusioned, bored. The helmsman (Heinz Göhrig—with a fine opening Südwind aria) is his lackey, a sort of Joe Pesci side-kick to his boss, a strangely prominent character but little developed, ever encouraging the indulgence in shallow diversions, and finally clubbed to death by the villagers.

Like the Dutchman, Senta (Barbara Schneider-Hofstetter) wants to break through the restless cycle of life’s tedious routines, disappointments (she is shown as variously abused by her father, boyfriend, and nurse), and expectations. Her spinning-wheel bound co-females (32 “The Price is Right”—like presenters arranged behind 32 refrigerators) mock Senta for her unwillingness to conform. Senta frees herself from the pressure and oppression by renouncing convention: visually in form of getting rid of the ill-fitting blonde wig and high heels that are the others’ uniform and musically with her ballade of the Dutchman.

Senta morphs from a big boned, ostracized tramp with little—or only a very awkward—character toward a very deep, sympathetic, highly dramatic, raving figure. This is the first real highpoint of this production and more than just a minor triumph for the generous voiced Mme. Schneider-Hofstetter who gives this all-or-nothing Senta all that she can and the character needs. An early tendency to shrillness and hardness on the high notes was gone by the time when her character reached ever greater authenticity, supplanted by a rich, striking voice throughout the entire register.

Donald, a.k.a Daland (Attila Jun), often portrayed as a well meaning—if eager and mercantile-minded – father, has no redeeming qualities here, he is an opportunist, a drunk and profiteer, and not ashamed of selling his daughter for the right price, her happiness be damned. Singing in all imaginable positions, Jun, with wonderful low notes, made the best of it.

Hilke Anderson was fitted into a rather one-dimensional Mary—part sales-team instructor, part Marcel Marceau—and she impressed with the very effective use of her modestly sized voice, helped by a well carrying vibrato. Lance Ryan’s George (a.k.a. Erik) had a suitably unpleasant voice for the sweat-pants wearing, abusive loser that his character is. (His Erik was at the opposite end, interpretively and vocally, from Klaus Florian Vogt’s Dutchman in Munich.)

The women’s chorus was not particularly impressive and unclean entries common. More impressive, on decibels alone, the chorus of the Scottish/Norwegian sailors who belted “Seeleut, Seeleut, wacht doch auf” from the edge of the ramp at the Dutch crew, invisible to the audience. Then came Bieito’s ingenious touch of the evening: The response of the ghostly chorus now counts as one of only two moments I have had actual goose-bumps in the theater. When the Dutchmen enter with their response, the doors to the orchestra seating fly open, temporarily mounted batteries of floodlights bath the lower part of the opera house in pale light, and the chorus—amplified—thunders back at the sailors on stage in full force and at full throat.

The audience, caught in between, witnesses how the Norwegians (as per Wagner’s instructions) actually go crazy. Not the kind of drunken brawl usually seen on stage! No, these sailors go stark raving mad, stripping down, pounding their heads against the floor, running and jumping against walls, smashing their heads in the computer monitors (investment bankers, remember!) and fridges strewn over the dirty and littered stage, doing violence upon each other and themselves, tearing their hair out, and convulsing in fitful spasms. It was blunt, crude… and one felt badgered into these goose-bumps. But it was deliciously shocking in the best sense and, as far as I am concerned, any case of goose-bumps in an opera house is a tremendous coup on the director’s or conductor’s part.

Speaking of conducting: Peter Schrottner served the production well with what he got from the orchestra, though the rawness and roughness was not just a result of the earlier version of the Dutchman. Comparison to the National Opera of Washington (metropolitan region population ~5.3 million) would be unfair, though, since the opera in Stuttgart (population ~580.000) is a full time company and its orchestra a seasoned band with plenty Wagner experience.

Because the Staatsoper Stuttgart’s production makes use of the 1841 original version of the Dutchman, Senta’s Father is Donald, not Daland; her boyfriend George, not Erik. The names are perhaps the most obvious difference to the later version(s) and were already changed to the Norwegian names when the work, musically unchanged, premiered in Dresden in early 1843. The first changes in the score occurred in 1846 and 1852, where the orchestration was modified to be less brash by being less heavy on the brass and take into consideration the latest developments made in these instruments’ capabilities. (The relative harshness of this version is the main reasons why Bieito and the conductor of the premiere Enrique Mazzola thought it more suited with Bieito’s bleak interpretation.)

“Only now that I have written Isolde’s final transfiguration have I been able to find the right ending for the Flying Dutchman overture – as well as the horrors of this Venus-mountain.” (Wagner to Mathilde Wasendonk, from Paris, April 10th, 1860)

In 1860, after working on Tristan & Isolde and corresponding with his “Paris version” of Tannhäuser, he added the glowing, redemptive music for Senta in the last act and, parallel, to the overture. (More—and more severe—changes were planned in 1864 but never came to fruition.) Cosima Wagner’s decision to put all three acts together as one for the 1901 “Bayreuth canonization” of the Dutchman coincides with the original plans and is how this opera is performed, anyway, no matter which version. (For more on Wagner’s revisions of The Flying Dutchman read Thomas Gray’s essay in “Der Fliegende Holländer”, Oxford Press)

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