For a man who memorably flooded the stage with blood for his thought-provoking Parsifal back in 2013, François Girard’s new production of Der Fliegende Holländer, which opened at the Metropolitan Opera on March 2, is a surprisingly tame affair. There is a concept here, according to interviews with the director and marketing materials, but if no one told you what it was, you might easily mistake it for any one of the dozens of conventional interpretations to have graced the stage over the last fifty years. Add to that a frustratingly hit-and-miss reading of the score by an at times passionless Valery Gergiev and it’s a clear case of missed opportunities.
Girard’s “concept” involves turning the Met stage into what is meant to be a giant oil painting, an attempt to reflect the portrait of the doomed Dutchman with which Senta is apparently obsessed. You can just about see that, especially at the end when the tumultuous sea sweeping over the barren forestage could equally be read as streaks of paint running down a canvas, but for most of the unbroken two-and-a-half hour stretch (the Met is playing the original continuous version of the score with a few minor cuts) it simply resembles, well, an opera set. The French-Canadian director certainly isn’t the first to envisage the opera through the eyes of its fixated heroine. The focus is on Senta from the start of the overture (or rather the focus is on an avatar played by a dancer), her red dress a symbol of passion slashing through a world of sober Victorian greys, blacks and midnight blues. Apparently we are meant to be inside her head, but unlike, say, Harry Kupfer’s famous 1978 “Senta’s Dream” concept for Bayreuth, which maintained the character front and center through the entire opera, Girard seems to let the idea go until she pops up for her traditional appearance in Act II.
Girard certainly has a great deal of visual acuity. John Macfarlane’s monumental set, dominated by brooding clouds and swirling mists in the two outer acts, and a huge, baleful eye gazing down on us throughout the central stretch, effortlessly accommodates the comings and goings of the impressive bulk that is the prow of Daland’s ship. Moritz Junge’s 19th-century costumes are appropriately artful, David Finn’s moody lighting is hugely evocative (the Dutchman’s shadow deserves its own bow), and Peter Flaherty’s atmospheric projections add a further layer of interest (though they are rather over-busy throughout the staged overture). Yet for all the available technical resources, crucial moments like the appearance of the Dutchman’s spectral crew, or Senta’s final redemptive immolation come across as damp squibs. The dangling ropes, at first suggesting a ship’s rigging, then an abstracted representation of the tangled skeins of the women’s “Spinning Chorus”, are certainly watchable, but do they bear compelling weight when taken as metaphor? The Dutchman’s seductive, glowing lump of gold is merely a symbol for, you guessed it, a lump of gold. Some rather orthodox, stand-and-sing-to-the-front blocking may also be intended as further pictorial images, but one man’s tableau is another man’s static staging.
There’s something static going on in the pit as well. Gergiev is an experienced Wagnerian, one who favors firm, stately tempi and uses them to explore the composer’s thematic layering and musical textures. At times, such as the electrifying first bars of the overture, his reading felt weighty and bursting with seeming momentum, but at other times the flame dulled, and the score became merely plodding. The start of the long duet for the Dutchman and Senta was glacial (and not entirely together on opening night). The orchestra, which generally manages to save the conductor’s bacon, played as well as might be expected, but even so there were moments of patchy ensemble and occasional glitches in the brass.
Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin made a valiant stab at the title role (replacing Bryn Terfel, who withdrew with a broken foot last month). His voice is pitchy black, the tone ample across the range, and his diction is crisp, and yet he lacks a crucial vocal nobility. Yes, he rises to the challenge of his long opening aria, but ultimately his is a morose presence that fails to win hearts and minds for this lonely mariner doomed to sail the seas for ever and a day.
As Senta, German soprano Anja Kampe made a promising Met debut, investing her long opening ballad with spitfire top notes even as she pulled back to display a pure piano for the more reflective sections. The tone just hardened at times in the upper echelons, but she remained a sympathetic presence even if the staging never gave her much chance to explore the physical relationships with the three men in her life.
Franz-Josef Selig was a solid, reliable Daland, Sergey Skorokhodov an exciting Erik with gleaming tone and impressive upper range, and David Portillo near ideal as a fresh-voiced Steersman. The Met Chorus was on top form, the men especially singing with burnished power and resplendent tone. They also proved pretty adept at handling Carolyn Choa’s intriguing choreography, one of the productions sporadic virtues. The offstage men’s voices in the Act III double chorus were mostly inaudible, but that ought to be easily fixed for future performances.
Despite its visual strengths—and it has plenty—this new production is a curate’s egg. There’s little here to offend the traditionalist, but whereas Girard’s Parsifal deepened your understanding of a complex work with each revisit, this plain sailing Flying Dutchman is too often a disappointing case of what you see is what you get.
Der Fliegende Holländer hits Australian cinemas on May 30