Another look at Alden’s Dutchman, a first look at Harold Wilson

Today’s matinee was the Canadian Opera Company’s closing performance of The Flying Dutchman, complete with a singer making his debut. The American bass Harold Wilson stepped in for an indisposed Franz-Josef Selig in the role of Daland. When I looked it up I saw he’s covered the role at the Metropolitan Opera.

Not too shabby.

Bass Harold Wilson

While it may be unfair comparing Wilson to anyone else (when they’re at the end of a run and he’s fresh) he sounded bigger & more precisely pitched than any singer we’ve heard in this show. The production may be different from what he’s seen, but even so Wilson fit in perfectly. We were lucky to have him.

I’m pleased that COC artistic director Perryn Leech found such a capable replacement.

Christopher Alden’s production is in its fourth incarnation with the COC. Roughly every seven years it comes ashore in Toronto, like the Dutchman himself.

I find that director’s theatre productions of opera aka “Regietheater” have not just their good and bad points, but more accurately good and bad scenes. There are moments in the show when one goes “aha”, because for that instant at least, the concept clicks. And there are also moments when the concept doesn’t quite fit the story.

While I heard comments on social media critical of the way Alden ends the work (and because it’s closing night I am comfortable offering a spoiler), it’s a brilliant resolution to the problem every director and designer faces with this opera. We’re told Senta is true to the Dutchman unto death, via stage directions in the score telling her to jump into the ocean (or the theatrical equivalent), followed by the ships sinking and the two, now happily transfigured, seen ascending into heaven. Of course nobody ever does it that way anymore, if they ever did.

By having Erik the hunter shoot her, which is totally consistent with the characters onstage at that moment and not far from what’s written, Senta can keep her promise. Alden then has the Dutchman ascend a spiral staircase as though into heaven: an effect that always gets me, today being no exception.

The production has diverged somewhat from its first presentation in the O’Keefe Centre, as usual. I suppose it’s inevitable. It was very different the first two times in that big barn of a theatre where we now have much more detail in Four Seasons Centre because of the intimacy of the venue. My friend Celine Papizewska reminded me of some of the edge she saw in Alden’s original version that’s not there anymore, especially the “horrific Holocaust imagery of the ghost chorus”. Whether that’s what Alden intended or not, it’s drifted in a new direction, possibly because the performers are restoring the usual readings of their roles, reflecting the score. Daland (both Selig or Wilson) are now closer to the usual comic territory of the role. The chorus in Act III seemed more human.

I found that I enjoyed Marjorie Owens’ Senta even more today, as I noticed some lovely nuances to her singing especially in her Act II ballad. Miles Mykkanen was again excellent as the Steersman, although I continue to be perplexed by what Alden asks of this character. In Act III when the chorus picks up the song from Act I with the refrain “Steuermann! Lass die wacht” (Steersman leave the watch), it’s as though Alden thinks this has to be literally directed at his Steersman, when it’s just a reprise of the song from Act I, and generic in its suggestion that the Steersman leave the watch. They’re drinking and having fun, but Alden asks Mykkanen to walk like a zombie across the front of the stage. Mykkanen does a great job of it, vocally & dramatically, but no matter how many more times I see this I don’t understand this. Oh well. (although –second thought next morning–perhaps the Steuermann is enacting something that made more sense in the earlier Alden versions, alongside a nastier version of the chorus, perhaps a dissenting soul, guilty, not wanting to take part..? but I’m still not sure)

The orchestra and chorus were again the real stars. Conductor Johannes Debus got the biggest applause of the night, deservedly.

Dutchman may have walked up his spiral staircase for the last time, but we still have a few Carmen performances left October 26, 28, 30, and November 4.

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4 Responses to Another look at Alden’s Dutchman, a first look at Harold Wilson

  1. Edward Brain says:

    Sorry, Leslie but the “horrific Holocaust imagery of the ghost chorus” is still there and the Dutchman is also dressed in a similar style outfit under his coat. Perhaps not as obvious as in 1996 but it still exists.

    Also, Erik murdering Senta is contrary to what Wagner actually wrote and typical of ‘Regietheatre’ in that the director thinks he knows better than the composer. Her suicide makes far more sense – she’s giving herself up to save her lover, similar to Elisabeth in Tannhauser, and can be seen with a Christian connection as she can be said to be dying for his sins akin to Christ dying for our sins. This is something that likely would have been more obvious to a 19th Century audience in Europe than a 21st Century Canadian audience.

    • barczablog says:

      I think we agree that even if the Holocaust imagery is “not as obvious as in 1996” it’s potentially a problem. Myself, I found it vaguely troubling, even if I thought it was ambiguous. And as I said I think Alden’s interpretation has been downplayed this time. Perhaps it’s because of where I sat for the first versions in O’Keefe, but I couldn’t see it as well. So while I found it vaguely offensive, I couldn’t put my finger on what was bothering me. It’s interesting too because some people (like my friend Celine, who I mention above) prefer the production when it is more edgy, while I’m happier with parts that could give offense watered down.

      As for the ending? To be honest, I find it interesting how rarely anyone seems to try to do Wagner as written, but part of that has to do with the huge demands he makes for mise-en-scene. Alden’s ending is cheaper than what’s written, and money is likely the driver, not anything artistic or ideological.

      Thanks for your comments.

  2. Celine Papizewska says:

    My impression of the Steurman was that he was depicting an emotionally impaired citizenry. (I’m still remembering the earlier version.) The revelers in the beer garden were moving in a mechanized, un-human manner, repetitive, unthinking, but the rhythmic pounding wasn’t just happy clapping (as happened during the procession to the bullring at Carmen the other night), it was violent striking and stamping, a fearful populace expressing its pain, and for me, the Steurman’s disjointed traversal across the reflected this dis-nature, a nod to Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
    Interesting point: Gidon told me that Alden originally wanted to end opera with no redemption, that both Senta and the Dutchman succumb to the mob – finis. Wow, how bleak! But the singers objected, insisting that there had to be redemption. So Alden came up with the tableau of the Dutchman rising up the staircase entwined in Senta’s veil. I was taken aback that the most beautiful and hopeful image of the performance was an add-on!

    • barczablog says:

      Celine, thank you so much for your comments…! they reflect the complex process of COC revivals: which I had suspected when I interviewed revival director Marilyn Gronsdal, btw. She’s negotiating this impossible middle-ground between a new cast and Alden’s original, plus various feedback. I recall hearing that some audience members were concerned about the original (perhaps anti-semitism?). It wouldn’t be the first time. I recall seeing the original from afar and not really seeing anything clearly enough to be upset one way or another, and then seeing the revival at Four Seasons Centre, where suddenly it rubbed me the wrong way, Yes I understand the whole Wandering Jew idea, but didn’t feel it was handled honourably at any stage of the game, but rather used in a provocative manner, something we see all the time in Regietheater (my brother for instance told me of an AIDA where the last scene is in a gas chamber….especially fraught when that’s playing to an audience in Germany).
      I feel even better, though, about the ending, knowing how convoluted its gestation / creation. Again, thanks for your background info!

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