Wednesday 23 August 2023

Revenge is the name of the Dutchman’s game: Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Holländer at the Bayreuth Festival

Wagner: Der Fliegende Hollander - Tomislav Muzek, Elisabeth Teige, Nadine Weissmann - Bayreuth Festival (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Der Fliegende Holländer - Tomislav Muzek, Elisabeth Teige, Nadine Weissmann - Bayreuth Festival (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath)

Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer; Attilio Glaser, Tomislav Mužek, Elisabeth Teige, Michael Volle, Nadine Weissmann, Georg Zeppenfeld; dir: Dmitri Tcherniakov; cond: Oksana Lyniv; Bayreuth Festival
Reviewed by Tony Cooper, 23 August 2023

A creative and imaginative force, Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Holländer is a masterful production and one to chalk up

The myth of the Dutchman is thought to have come from an episode in Heinrich Heine’s satirical novel of 1833, Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski, in which a character attends a theatrical performance of The Flying Dutchman in Amsterdam. Nevertheless, it could have also originated from the 17th-century Golden Age of the Dutch East India Company. However, the opera’s première took place in Dresden on 2nd January 1843 but was pulled from the repertoire after just four performances and shelved for a couple of decades. 

The inspiration for Wagner to write Der fliegende Holländer came about by a stormy crossing he made from East Prussia to England in 1839. Normally a week-long trip, it took over three weeks and the ship’s crew, superstitious as befitting old seadogs, oddly thought that Wagner, travelling with his first wife Christine Wilhelmine ‘Minna’ Planer, was bad news and responsible for the bad weather.  

At one point the ship (named after the Greek sea goddess ‘Thetis’ who married Peleus and became the mother of Achilles) put in for safety at the Norwegian fishing village of Sandvika, located on the southern coast of the island of Borøya, which, in turn, Wagner used as the setting for the opera. 

Wagner: Der Fliegende Hollander - Tomislav Muzek, Elisabeth Teige, Michael Volle - Bayreuth Festival (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Der Fliegende Holländer - Tomislav Muzek, Elisabeth Teige, Michael Volle - Bayreuth Festival (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath)

This year's Bayreuth Festival features 
Der fliegende Holländer directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov and conducted by Oksana LynivBut Dmitri Tcherniakov - a deconstructionist in practically every libretto he touches - drifts miles away from Wagner’s setting focusing on the town where the Dutchman grew up while examining the psychological aspects of his unsettling and disturbing persona. As such, it offers a unique and different approach to the composer’s first mature opera. 

A free thinker, too, Tcherniakov unashamedly pushes the boundaries of direction to the nth degree but, in so doing, comes up with some fascinating and rich ideas in which to breathe new life into his productions which, hopefully, will introduce and encourage a younger audience to the opera genre.  

For instance, in his Ring for Staatsoper Berlin (premièred last year) he dumped the spear and other such wonderful and magical trappings but, nonetheless, came up with a rewarding production while in his production of Der Freischütz for Bavarian State Opera, he switched the opera’s traditional scenario from the world of hunters and peasants of Bohemia in the Middle Ages to a contemporary office space where Kuno, usually the chief forester, is gainfully employed as boss of a large corporate-listed company. And now, of course, at Bayreuth, he’s at it again. Why not? 

Therefore, when the curtain went up on the opening scene of act one there’s not a jolly tar or a big ship in sight, just ‘Jack’ and the lads having a good old knees-up in their ‘local’ swilling down beer like there’s no tomorrow with the Steersman, Attilio Glaser, who sang the sailor’s love-song at the beginning of the opera in a tender and sincere way, in the thick of it leading everyone on. The drum major of the bar! 

As the beer went down the vocabulary of the ‘crew’ went up particularly when they burst forth into song with their energetic cries of ‘Ho-jo-he! Hal-lo-jo!’ thrown in for good measure whilst swapping, no doubt, legendary stories touching upon mysterious tales of the sea such as the infamous Ghost Ship.  

Harbouring, as always, a curious and inquiring mind, Tcherniakov also introduces a new ‘character’ (albeit briefly) in his interpretation of Holländer, the Dutchman’s mother. He perceives her as a bit of a flirt inasmuch as she enjoyed a fling with a married man, who actually turns out to be none other than Daland, the father of the opera’s heroine, Senta, but he dumps her at whim. And Mary, usually cast as Senta’s nurse, here becomes Daland’s wife/partner therefore Senta’s mother/stepmother. A bizarre move, for sure, but it firmly stamps Tcherniakov’s style and credentials. 

But a strategic move and a step in the right direction came when Ukrainian conductor, Oksana Lyniv - the first woman to set foot in the hallowed pit of the Festspielhaus following decades of male domination - took charge of the opera’s première in 2021. Therefore, it’s good to see her back this year. 

A conductor full of energy, thought and commitment, she certainly energized her charges in reaching some terrific and exciting playing particularly during the overture which paints an impressionistic picture of the wild and raging sea under the lash of a terrific roaring storm. And all through this furious orchestration the motive of the Dutchman is tauntingly heard again and again to mesmeric effect while a series of pictures, offering an insight into the Dutchman’s past, are intermittingly flashed on to a semi-transparent, grey-coloured screen, depicting scenes from his boyhood. 

The loose and wayward behaviour of the Dutchman’s mother, however, didn’t fit the gossipy tight-knitted community in which she lived. Given the cold shoulder (thoughts of Peter Grimes flashed through my mind) and totally distraught she hangs herself from her bedroom window while her distraught son agonizingly stretches out to her but to no avail. 

A huge psychological blow for the youngster and in a rash and disturbing moment of restlessness, he packs his bags and he’s off mirroring the libretto’s cursed Dutchman, the ghost captain, who once invoked Satan and, therefore, was punished to roam the oceans of the world forever with a remit to anchor every seven years in which to be redeemed by someone who’ll be faithful and truthful to him until death. 

Time moves slowly in depressive circumstances and, therefore, after a seven-year absence, the Dutchman duly returns to his roots but aged, changed and no doubt a bit tired and weary of life, he’s seen quietly sitting in the corner of a packed bar totally unrecognizable figuring out how to avenge his mother’s untimely death. He enjoys a pint with Daland, now turned out as a smart, well-respected suited-and-booted businessman not as a rugged ‘on-the-make’ sea-captain as the libretto states, learning about his daughter Senta. 

That fine German bass, Georg Zeppenfeld, a favourite of the Grüner Hügel, fitted perfectly the large-size boots of Daland while the German baritone, Michael Volle, who fitted so well the handsome role of the Dutchman, dramatically related the story of his fate in The Monologue ‘Die Frist ist um, abermals verstrichen sind sieben Jahr’ (‘The time has come, seven years have again elapsed’) while cursing his damned bruising existence. Without doubt, Volle’s stage presence and vocal prowess proved a good double-act! 

A Wagnerite of great standing, I still harbour fond memories of Volle in the role of Hans Sachs in Barrie Kosky’s glowing production of Meistersinger premièred at Bayreuth in 2017 while he also delivered a masterful performance as Wotan in the première of Tcherniakov’s Ring at Staatsoper Berlin last year. 

The cast was further strengthened by Norwegian soprano, Elisabeth Teige, who absolutely shone in the pivotal role of Senta beefed up a bit by Tcherniakov who portrayed her as a bit of a firebrand and not one to mess around with. Her strong, crystal clear-cut voice offered a glowing and moving account of The Ballad, a masterpiece of composition, vocally and instrumentally, recounting the legend and the curse of the Dutchman. 

And, indeed, Nadine Weissmann (who sang so well the role of Erda in Frank Castorf’s bicentennial Ring at Bayreuth) proved excellent casting, too, in the role of Mary, firmly in control of the Spinning Chorus, a piece truly reflecting Wagner’s gift of melody and a piece widely known through Liszt’s ravishing piano arrangement.  

Once again, Tcherniakov reimagines the spinning scene which paid off handsomely. Seated classroom style, all the spinners, score in hand, are seen in rehearsal under the direction of Mary while a portrait of the Flying Dutchman is being bandied about much to the annoyance and frustration of Senta. 

The scene in which the Dutchman and Senta first meet proved a great piece of theatre. Being entertained and fussed about in Daland’s house, the honoured guest casually drifts into the conservatory, a brand-new extension to Daland’s rather plain-looking residence, clocking on to Senta immediately who’s impatiently waiting on the outside looking restless and agitated but expecting something to happen. The duet between her and the Dutchman was brilliantly executed, sung with such deep meaning and with total understanding of the score by a couple of trusted and dedicated Wagnerians seen on top form. 

And in another strongly delivered duet, Erik (vigorously sung and acted by Croatian tenor, Tomislav Mužek) and Senta argue the toss over their shaky relationship, the stage scenario well reflected their angst and anger while a rather ugly brawl between the locals and their uninvited guests turns into disaster with the Dutchman’s ‘crew’ now his henchmen - a bunch of seemingly uninteresting ‘lifeless’ characters attired in dark-blue customary industrial wear - in the thick of it. 

Here Tcherniakov offers a big surprise from his director’s notebook by arming the Dutchman with a revolver who wildly fires three shots at random thus emptying the crowded square while at the same time, angrily and without too much fuss, dumps Senta for her betrayal. And always ahead of the game, Tcherniakov then conjures up another trick from his magic box offering, perhaps, the biggest surprise of all when Mary, armed with a loaded shotgun, delivers a deadly bullet to the Dutchman’s chest. 

Amazingly, Tcherniakov’s still not finished. Ideas simply flood his mind. Therefore, a further twist to the plot unveils itself with Senta not rushing to the Dutchman’s aid in an act of redemption as one would expect but turns to Mary, uncontrollably shaking and full of remorse, embracing her in a sincere and comforting way. She seems to find no comfort, though, from the actions of her phantom lover revengefully razing her town to ashes mirroring, of course, the ending of Götterdämmerung!  

Although the Dutchman achieved his desire, revenging his mother’s death, it came at a great price as, too, did Edmond Dantes’ revengeful trait in Alexandre Dumas’ well-loved novel, Le Comte de Monte-Cristo. Food for thought, eh! 

Anyhow, it’s a production to chalk up (by the way, the last showing this season - get in quick for next year, it’s not to be missed!) and one that received and ignited a thunderous curtain call from a packed and enthusiastic house that went on and on reaching to an exciting climax when chorus-master, Eberhard Friedrich, took his bow with members of his extended chorus, the audience exploded into a chorus of approval that rocked the rafters. The same adulation was bestowed upon Oksana Lyniv when she jumped with her bunch of players from the pit to the stage underscoring that the work done below is just as important as the work done above. Bravo! 

And bravo to every member of the creative team, too. Elena Zaytseva produced a good functional and distinctive wardrobe of a robust and trendy outdoor style of clothing while the lighting scenario conjured up by Gleb Filshtinsky added so much to the overall stage picture especially the burning of the Dutchman’s town which kept the audience’s attention right down to the last bar. 

Wagner: Der Fliegende Hollander - Michael Volle, Elisabeth Teige - Bayreuth Festival (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Der Fliegende Holländer - Michael Volle, Elisabeth Teige - Bayreuth Festival (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath)

Let’s not forget either the ‘man of the moment’ and ‘master of the stage’, Dmitri Tcherniakov, the toast of the Grüner Hügel and the main topic of conversation at breakfast table at my hotel. He likes to design his own stage and came up with a simple fancy-free (but practicable) series of free-standing mobile sets that fitted and depicted each scene so positively well. What else can he do? I wonder! 

Reviewed by Tony Cooper

Conductor: Oksana Lyniv
Director/stage designer: Dmitri Tcherniakov
Costume designer: Elena Zaytseva
Lighting designer: Gleb Filshtinsky
Dramaturgy: Tatiana Werestchagina
Chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich
Daland: Georg Zeppenfeld
Senta : Elisabeth Teige
Erik: Tomislav Mužek
Mary: Nadine Weissmann
Der Steuermann: Attilio Glaser
Der Holländer: Michael Volle 

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