Friday, March 15, 2019

Richard Wagner, Der fliegende Holländer (1843)


Damn, man, how 'bout that overture? Nothing could shout "Damned Pirate Ghostship" more plainly. I am extremely impressed. I mean, not that the rest of the score is any slouch, but that overture.

So there's a ship on its way home taking refuge from a storm, when they encounter a ghostly vessel piloted by the titular Holländer. He's sad because he's damned to sail the seas eternally except every seven years when he's cast on-shore; if, during this time, he can find a wife who will love him faithfully unto death, he is home free. So he asks the captain, hey, got a daughter? Yup, he replies, she's pretty great! How 'bout if I marry her? Well...sure, why not? Not exactly Great Moments in Parenting, but it turns out, in an amazingly lucky coincidence, that the daughter, Senta, is a long-time Flying Dutchman fangirl, and she's totally keen on doing this thing and then they both die and ascend to heaven. How nice for them.

There are certain goofy aspects to this plot, it is true. But looking past them, we see that the main thing is the idea of a woman's perfect, selfless love saving a damned soul (which also, come to think of it, was the ending of Tannhäuser--I believe we have successfully identified a Recurring Theme). However, "looking past that" is an awfully glib thing to say--the idea doesn't exist in a vacuum; it's in an actual context that must be reckoned with. The opera sets itself an awfully tall task: it needs to convince us that that this woman would be willing to make this sacrifice for a ghost pirate whom she's just met, hopefully also convincing us that she is not therefore insane. I am honestly not convinced this isn't actually impossible--the opera may well be fundamentally broken in that regard. But IF it is to work, it certainly depends completely on the production itself. This version, by the Latvian National Opera and Ballet...doesn't.

So first, I should acknowledge that the production is clearly pretty low-budget, and there's something to be said for doing more with less. Furthermore, there's nothing wrong with the cast, Egils Siliņš being particularly magisterial in the title role. But...hmm. Well, it's some sort of twentieth-century thing, with all the sailors dressed in navy uniforms and the women as...naval nurses? I guess? I don't love the look, but I still think it's at least theoretically okay. But the production does some truly inexplicable things that really do not help the audience to get lost in the magic, of which I will enumerate three. First: what is the deal with all the sailors at the end of the first part brandishing toothbrushes? Does this really lend any gravitas to the production? Second: at the beginning of the second part, the women are supposed to spinning, on spinning wheels. But here there are no wheels; instead, the women are rhythmically sort of fiddling with their wrists, their watches or bracelets. And SERIOUSLY, what the hell are they supposed to be doing and WHY? And third: the reason Senta's would-be beau Erik keeps coming on with huge dead birds is that he's supposed to be a hunter, but it's STILL goofy-looking, and it certainly doesn't explain why he keeps manhandling them and thrusting them at Senta.

But regardless of all that, the relationship, such as it is, between the Dutchman and Senta just doesn't work. To be fair: it's possible if not probable that it would NEVER work. I mean, they barely interact at all. But here...eh. He just stands there dopily, looking like someone from the Addams Family (when I called him "magisterial," I was basically referring to his singing), and it's just...nope! Not quite!

But yeah man, the music. Quite a thing.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Dad pontificated to the effect that...

I found this to be a very entertaining comic essay, which pointed me strongly in the direction of waiting to see what the Met makes of it.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Sweveham pontificated to the effect that...

Yes,you're right, Senta/the Dutchman is a very implausible love story. But their duets are nice enough that I don't care about that.

Anyway Director Harry Kupfer did a famous version at Bayreuth in the 80s in which Senta is in fact insane. The Dutchman is a delusion or fantasy of hers, which she has created to escape her restrictive and boring bourgeois/patriarchal home environment. She projects this fantasy on some random man her father wants Senta to marry. Senta ultimately commits suicide to fulfil her delusion and escape the horrible real world.

It was released on DVD later with Simon Estes in the title role and Lisbeth Balslev as Senta. Check it out, the staging is cool and the singing is great, especially Estes and Matti Salminen (who plays Daland).

3:29 PM  
Anonymous Gregory pontificated to the effect that...

I own the version Sweveham mentioned; I can bring it with me next time we're both at the parents', if you're interested.

3:46 PM  
Blogger GeoX, who is here to stay, like it or not. pontificated to the effect that...

That is interesting, though it's hard for me to understand how parts of it work: I mean, what are we supposed to make of...basically ANYTHING the Dutchman says?

4:05 AM  
Blogger Sweveham pontificated to the effect that...

If I recall correctly all the Dutchman's dialogue and monologue plus all the supernatural stuff involving the ship is supposed to only take place in Senta's imagination. She is on stage constantly to indicate this, including the first act.

7:18 AM  
Blogger Thomas pontificated to the effect that...

The huge dead birds Erik keeps coming up with, are they supposed to be albatrosses? That'd seem to fit the theme, at least.

10:38 AM  

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