Wagner Notes

Paul Du Quenoy
July 2020

Despite the Covid-19 crisis, which caused the cancellation of the last two months of the Met’s 2019-2020 season, the company did manage to pull off three of eight scheduled performances of its latest new production. Der fliegende Holländer, the composer’s first mature work, has not had a fresh look at the Met since August Everding’s spectral industrial-age production appeared in 1989. That effort aged poorly over its three decades. In a barometer of decline, the snow storm that blasted through its finale withered over successive revivals from the original blinding blizzard to the light flurry we saw at its last outing in 2017. Strong casts, however, generally made it worthwhile. [The new production streamed on July 5, following WSNY’s June 29 and July 1 Seminar/Webinar, which included an interview with two cast members: Daland (Franz-Josef Selig) and the Steersman (David Portillo).]

Director François Girard made a (bloody) splash with a Parsifal that opened to general approval here in 2013. I never saw much in it. The Act II bloodbath looked gimmicky, and the rest said little of interest about the work. Girard’s Dutchman, his second Met production, did not fare much better. The overture is one of Wagner’s most evocative and can stand well on its own as a kind of short dramatic tone poem. Here it was cluttered with a showy and inconsequential lightshow projecting shapes that come to resemble a ship breaking up in the waves. As Mariusz Trelinski did with his own misstep in the prelude of Tristan und Isolde in his new production of that opera in 2016, the busy nautical projections were a pointless distraction. Girard made his worse by adding a superfluous dancer whose weird undulations were bereft of any connection to the unfolding plot that follows. John Macfarlane’s uninspired sets were bland and basic. The cursed Dutchman does not even get a ship and is left to wander around awkwardly on foot. Daland’s ship, which has some visual merits, is heaved on and off stage as necessary, but its presence merely announces the other ship’s absence.

The spinning chorus that gives rise to Senta’s ballad, the opera’s focal point, heaves on vertically suspended ropes that recall an adolescent’s gym class. This could have poked fun at Senta’s raging passions, but the effect did not seem intended to be humorous. Her portrait of the Dutchman appears only as a huge eye that looked like it was repurposed from a failed Ring Cycle. There was no hint of legend, mystery, or attraction – just an empty gesture toward obsession that made one think of later Wagnerian characters and wonder what they were doing here. Dutchman’s finale has been tricky for the last generation or two of directors. The music movingly proclaims the doomed couple’s redemption through love, but our alienated creative caste is too uncomfortable with both of those concepts to give them any credence. Girard has the traumatized townspeople look out over a crimson sunset in a moment that screams, “So what?”

This new production was intended to mark the magnificent Welsh bass-baritone Sir Bryn Terfel’s return to the Met after an eight-year absence. A broken ankle, however, removed him from all stage performance even before Covid-19 shut down the performing arts worldwide. He was capably replaced by the Russian baritone Evgeny Nikitin, whom I first encountered in the role under conductor Valery Gergiev’s baton at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater some twenty years ago. Nikitin gave alluringly brasher performances in those days, when he was still under thirty. Later, in 2012, he suffered a career setback with Dutchman when he was summarily fired from a new Bayreuth Festival production after an old video surfaced of him sporting what looked like a swastika tattoo. Being “cancelled” avant la lettre may have tempered his engagement with Wagner, but his solid baritone, which has given the Met memorable Klingsors, Kurwenals, and Gunthers, has not really grown into the part. The lower range, which conveys the grave depths of the doomed mariner’s devilish predicament, proved elusive.

Soprano Anja Kampe, shown above*, made a big, bright, and long overdue house debut as Senta. Having mastered heavier Wagner parts elsewhere – her Berlin Isolde last year was enthralling – she brought a powerful effort that in many ways saved this drab production. Like Nikitin, she sounded tired by the end of the evening, but Met audiences should look forward to hearing more from her. Nikitin’s countryman Sergei Skorokhodov proved an ardent Erik, delivering a manlier effort than we usually see in this cloying tenor part. And mezzo Mihoko Fujimura, a Wagnerian stalwart who has enjoyed a long and well-deserved European career, made a fine Met debut as Senta’s watchful governess Mary.

Gergiev was back on the Met podium after an absence of five years. Rumors have long swirled that the Met orchestra chafes under his reportedly authoritarian manner, and he has appeared regularly enough at Carnegie Hall to suggest that he has not just been too busy or too disenchanted with DeBlasio’s New York to have stayed away from the Met. He ran a tight performance, with a finely balanced touch that lingered over the sensitive moments while delivering a tenacious drive in the stormier scenes.

© Wagner Notes, July 2020, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

Paul Du Quenoy,

a private investor, holds a PhD in History from Georgetown University and is President and Publisher of Academica Press.