François Girard’s Flying Dutchman

François Girard’s production of Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman is tonight’s free opera on the Metropolitan Opera website, available also tomorrow until the early evening when Rigoletto takes over. It’s new as in, having premiered in 2020.

I heard & read some horribly negative reviews, and so I had very low expectations, yet was pleasantly surprised and recommend you have a look if you have the chance. The singing is wonderful, and there’s nothing wrong with the production, at least nothing when you compare it to Girard’s previous work. This is the same director whose Parsifal was to grace the Canadian Opera Company stage last fall but for the pandemic, and who had previously impressed with Siegfried and Oedipus Rex, to say nothing of his cinematic work which I’ll omit except as far as saying it raises the stakes and audience expectations. I adored Parsifal (as the Met broadcast the same production years ago, and I have it on DVD), while being conflicted about the other two. The cast for the last incarnation of the Siegfried included some of the best talent I’ve ever seen on a COC stage, making up for shortcomings in the production.

Dutchman is a fascinating opera, Wagner’s first masterpiece, even if it sometimes seems to be straddling the boundaries between genres, perhaps evidence of the birth-pangs of something new in the theatrical world & Wagner’s imagination. While the story of Senta & the Dutchman concerns spiritual matters, they inhabit a world that mixes romantic comedy and gothic romance. I think the chief problems I see in all the negative reviews concern Girard’s choice to mostly ignore the conventions of the earlier forms, and focus the entire opera on Senta & the Dutchman.

Senta is the focus. We see a picture frame with an eye that might be that of the Dutchman inside it. The story centres on the ballad of the Dutchman, whose image is in a painting we encounter in Act II; but Girard shows it to us in the overture, and from time to time throughout the work. Girard frames the Act II chorus of young women as a kind of portrayal of the norns, as we see huge ropes strung across the set, strummed and eventually tangled.

Girard’s Flying Dutchman production, set design by John Macfarlane

The trick is not to show up with stipulations, disgruntled by what’s missing, but instead to allow Girard to do what he’s doing and see it for what it is. No it’s not working in the usual ways of a romantic opera, but at times it’s spell-binding, beautiful, effective: at least for what it is.

While we see parts of the ship of Senta’s father Daland and the sailors of that ship, we never see the Dutchman’s vessel nor his sailors even though that’s in the score. The change isn’t a big deal if you surrender to what Girard is doing, which is quite effective. There’s a computer-generated effect that reminds me of something we saw in Robert Lepage’s designs for Damnation of Faust, where the movements of the Dutchman are animated into huge ghostly shadows, synchronized with his movements, that sometimes dominate the background.

Musically it’s wonderful, the Met Orchestra sounding great under Valery Gergiev. Anja Kampe sings a glorious interpretation of Senta, a role that sometimes comes across as crazed in her obsession, totally convincing even in the close-ups of a high-def broadcast. Evgeny Nikitin, a late replacement for the injured Bryn Terfel, was restrained, mysterious & otherworldly in his dignified portrayal of the Dutchman; he’s more of a baritone, wonderful in the higher parts of the role.

Evgeny Nikitin and Anja Kanpe

Franz-Josef Selig was a conventionally comic Daland, while Sergey Skorokhodov stole the show as the best Erik (a hunter in love with Senta) I’ve ever seen.

If there’s a problem it’s with the weighty objectives of a director determined to show profundity in an opera that’s often light-weight & comic in tone. Yet it works if you let go of your assumptions and the score and simply go with it, seeing what’s in front of you. The choral set-piece in the last act is totally unlike any I’ve seen before, quite lovely & a curious companion piece to what we see in Parsifal, another opera where Girard assembles groups that are all of one gender (although in Dutchman it’s actually written that way).

The staging of the ending is a bit weak but that’s true of every production I’ve ever seen. Directors all struggle with the requirements of the story, and this one is far from the worst.

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