By Robert Mitchell
The busy opera company in Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city, presented 10 performances of a new production of Der Fliegende Holländer in February and March 2019. The opening performances were conducted by American Steven Sloane. Making her European conducting debut, Australian Jennifer Condon conducted the majority of the rehearsals and led the final two performances to thunderous applause from both audience and cast.
Jennifer will be remembered by many long-term members of the Wagner Society from the 2010 Hamburg Ring symposium and her Sydney presentation on her preparation of the score and subsequent recording of Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ as-yet-to-be staged opera Sappho.
The Holländer season also included fellow Australian bass baritone Daniel Sumegi, making his debut in the title role, having previously sung Daland with Opera Australia and other companies.
Also making her role debut was Swedish lyric dramatic soprano Cornelia Beskow and at these final performances there were two different tenors portraying the jilted Erik: Croation Tomislav Mužek (27/3) and Hungarian Zoltan Nyári (31/3). Completing the truly international principal cast and creatives were Russian bass Nikolay Didenko as Daland, local mezzo Karin Lovelius as Mary and American tenor Timothy Fallon as the Steersman.
To both greater and lesser effect, the production by Dutch director Lotte de Beer takes advantage of the 1930s-built opera house’s wide letterbox stage and its original revolve to create two very distinctive worlds. Designed by Austrian Christof Hetzer (who also designed the costumes), the dark and menacing world of the Dutchman is represented by an eerily lit (by Frenchman Jean Kalman) curved black wall. During the overture the wall splits open to reveal Senta as a child in her father Daland’s cheerfully bright house engrossed in her obsession with the legend of the Dutchman. With each reopening of the wall Senta is older and more fascinated by darkness, even hanging curtains in a final attempt to shut out the light. A gust of wind blows them down in a gesture portentous of the psychological storm that is about to enter her world.
The massive dominating wall, which curves back from downstage centre, means that the first sailors’ scene with the Steersman, Daland and the chorus of sailors, takes place on a section of jetty protruding into a cramped corner of the stage. Mr Fallon, ideally suited to the Steersman’s role with its wide- ranging leaps, sang clearly and lustily in his opening stanzas (Mit Gewitter und Sturm) and with more subtle modulation as sleep fell upon him. The gentlemen of the chorus made a fine sound despite many of them being virtually off stage owing to the limited space allowed them by the set.
Forced to break through the ‘fourth wall’, the Dutchman is first revealed on the opposite side of the theatre to sing his opening monolog (Die Frist ist um) from the auditorium. Mr Sumegi’s darkly vibrant voice rang out clearly as he moved around the stalls. But I fear that for many in the audience, especially in the circle, the scene would have been heard coming from a disembodied voice.
In his first encounter with the Dutchman, Mr Didenko’s richly round bass had sufficient steel to express the duplicitousness of the money-hungry merchant willing to sell his beloved daughter to a stranger in exchange for a handsome treasure-trove.
As he and the Dutchman disappear into the wings, the centre of the wall opens to again reveal the room in Daland’s house that we have already seen. With the absence of spinning wheels, the members of the ladies’ chorus are reduced to mop-and-duster-wielding house cleaners, which makes no sense of Wagner’s text or rhythmically evocative music. While this decision led to some rather overacting from several of the ladies, their singing was full-throated and suitably rhythmic.
Refusing to be involved in the housework, Senta distracts the company with her famous ballad (Traft ihr das Schiff). Ms Beskow sang with relish and great intensity that led perfectly into the closing duet in which she makes her decision to be faithful to the Dutchman until death.
At this point, for the second time during the opera, the monumental set disadvantages the production. Disappointingly, the change from Daland’s house in Act 2 into the expansive village green in Act 3 necessitates an interval. Consequently, the unrelenting momentum that Ms Condon skillfully paced had to be interrupted.
Following an interval of upwards of 30 minutes, the set for the short Act 3 seemed unrelated to the former scenes. Most distracting were the cut-out trees that could not be secured to the stage floor, since on the arrival of the Dutchman’s crew (pre-recorded and unseen) in the confusion the terrified chorus had to spin them around to become threatening black silhouettes, while others cleared the stage of tables and benches and set a black monolith upstage centre, presumably representing the Dutchman’s ship.
One of the great scenes in Act 3 is Erik’s aria Willst jenes Tag’s du nicht, in which he attempts to dissuade Senta from her decision to join the Dutchman. At her first performance, MsCondon had the challenge of working with Mr Mužek, whohad arrived the previous day and had minimal rehearsal. (Mr Nyári, who sang all the other performances, replaced the originally cast tenor during the rehearsal period but was unavailable for the penultimate performance.) Luckily, conductor and tenor had worked together on Holländer in Bayreuth and the result was a splendid performance of the aria and, indeed, portrayal of the whole role, totally at one with the production both musically and physically.
It should also be noted that Ms Condon faced yet another challenge in the final performance. Ms Beskow had developed a cold between performances and the only solution was to have local soprano Liine Carlsson standing by – literally: in the wings with music on stand. (She has sung the role many times but was totally unfamiliar with this production.) In both Acts 2 and 3, on a signal from Ms Beskow, Ms Carlsson did have to step forward onto the edge of the action to complete Senta’s line in the climactic ensembles with an impressive quality of voice and assurance.
The old adage may be that ‘it’s not over until the fat lady sings.’ Well, neither of the Sentas in this production were fat. But in the case of Der Fliegende Holländer, it is not over until well after the lady has sung. There have always been questions about Wagner’s intentions during the orchestral apotheosis. Here Ms de Beer chose what could only be interpreted as a feminist ending. Having disappeared into the blackness of the monolith with the Dutchman, suddenly Senta reappears alone and signals with gestures that her lifelong obsession was foolish and misguided. (This is reminiscent of the final moments for Eva in the Kasper Holten ROH/OA Meistersinger in which she storms off, disillusioned at Walter’s decision to join the masters.)
To this writer’s knowledge, there is nothing in the text or the libretto’s stage directions to indicate that Senta has anything but obsessive tunnel vision when it comes to the Dutchman. Did her actions in the final moments detract from the impact of the closing chords? Somewhat. But in the end it was Wagner’s wonderful early romantic music that won the night through excellent singing and orchestral playing under the baton of a conductor with a clear vision for the opera.