Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Deutsche Oper Berlin: Der fliegende Holländer

7 May 2017 — Premiere

Berlin already has a Wagner opera staged by a choreographer in the guise of Sascha Waltz’s Tannhäuser at the Staatsoper. With that work, at least, one can see the justification, even if of course there’s a great deal more to Tannhäuser than the Venusberg—which happens, indeed, to be one of the opera’s primary messages.

Samuel Youn as the Dutchman in the Deutsche Oper's new Fliegende Holländer (photo © Thomas Jauk)

For a choreographer to stage Der fliegende Holländer certainly seems less obvious. But any fears of a riot of dancing sailors and seamstresses were entirely unfounded; concerns that the stage would be flooded with additional dancers, too, were unjustified. This was that rare beast: an opera staging by a choreographer that didn’t feature much dancing at all—or any dancers.

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This is all perhaps to admit my ignorance regarding Christian Spuck (resident choreographer at the Stuttgart Ballet), who already has a handful of opera productions behind him. And this Dutchman indeed felt like the work of an experienced operatic hand: dark, monochrome (with one exception), concentrated and, on the whole, theatrically very effective.

But my heart did sink early on. During the overture a figure sat on the stage, hugging himself in desperation beside a model ship. A misty cloud hung above him, from which rain tinkled very audibly into a shallow rectangular pool  at the back of the stage. Such effects don’t always suggest a director with much interest in the music.

But, though this was distracting in the quieter passages of the overture, it was turned off most of the time during the opera itself, and proved, along with virtually everyone having to make their entrance through the pool, important in helping cement the production’s heavy, wearily dank aesthetic.

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It soon became clear, too, that the crouching figure was Erik, onstage all evening and acted fearlessly by Thomas Blondelle. We were invited to view the whole action from his perspective, events on stage intermittently going into freeze frame as he silently expressed his exasperation or ran from one position to another. 

The only character dressed in colour (in the dull green jacket of the hunter), Erik here stood out as perhaps the one sane—and human—person on stage. And his remarkable dream narration, beloved of early psychoanalysts, here became the whole work’s central pivot: it does indeed sit at the centre of the piece, in the middle of the second of three acts, performed here in their elided, proto-music drama form.

It’s a striking idea, and was realised with striking effectiveness by Spuck, who kept the rest of the production darkly focussed around him. In addition to its paddling pool, Rufus Didwiszus’s single set consisted of black walls with two large doors barely visible at the back. A large mass, later revealed as a phalanx of sewing machines, was hidden under a dust sheet and was ‘sailed’ around the stage by Daland and the Steuermann during Act 1’s final chorus.

Ingela Brimberg as Senta (photo © Thomas Jauk)

This was unveiled as we moved into Act 2, when an off-white tent-like enclosure with a few daubings to suggest an interior was hoisted above it. At the start of Act 3 that was brought down and replaced with a grand black awning. It was an economical, if relentlessly monochrome, way of dealing with the scene changes quickly—but an effective one.

Daland’s crew were dressed in dark greys and blacks, and came traipsing on into the gloom with torches at the start. The Dutchman and his crew arrived through the mist in a black hooded cloaks, and Samuel Youn’s performance was one of intense, concentrated angst and desperation, emphasised by a narrow-bore bass baritone that only ever seems to function at a high level of intensity.

Tobias Kehrer’s Daland was in many ways outstanding, the voice wonderfully rich and rounded in its middle and lower registers. But both he and Youn struggled at the top of their ranges, as indeed did Blondelle in the tricky Helden-bel canto of Erik.

Ingela Brimberg’s Senta, by contrast, only improved as the evening went on, her soprano, initially a little spread in its timbre, achieving terrific focus and thrilling volume by the end, which was pessimistically, unpredictably but not entirely satisfactorily staged in the absence of any ships to sail off in or cliffs to jump off. Ronita Miller dusted off her gloriously fruity mezzo as Mary, and Matthew Newlin was an eloquent, appealing Steuermann.

Ingela Brimberg (Senta) and Thomas Blondelle (Erik) (photo © Thomas Jauk)

The expanded chorus was outstanding, and this is perhaps where Spuck’s direction was at its most impressive, bringing a choreographic unity to their movements, often suggestive of them being blown one way or another by the wind, or tossed from side to side by the waves—the Spinning Chorus and mocking of Senta were directed with a sharp wit, while the chorus’s reactions to the Ballad helped make Brimberg’s fine performance of it all the more gripping.

Keeping the whole thing afloat, though, was the grandly surging sea of sound provided by the Deutsche Oper orchestra under Donald Runnicles. The playing was bracing and rich in tone, the brass burnished, the strings incisive and the wind plangent. Runnicles whipped up the storms thrillingly, as well as bringing bounce and lightness to to the more Weberian passages. Most impressively of all, he managed to tie the whole thing together with an inexorable sense of forward movement, justifying his decision to perform it without any breaks. 

Not perhaps an evening, in Spuck’s dark production, to offer much consolation or redemption, but this was an exciting, concentrated couple of hours of music drama.  

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