The ersatz Dutchman sank to his knees at the end of the opening of the Bayreuth Festival, taking his bow to rapturous applause from an audience that included Chancellor Angela Merkel and a good chunk of her cabinet.
It may have been a gesture of relief, humility or gratitude as the audience showered the Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn with bravos and stamped their feet in approval.
Youn was under pressure. Just four days earlier, the Russian bass-baritone Yevgeny Nikitin ducked out of the lead role in “The Flying Dutchman” in an uproar over Nazi symbols he got tattooed on his chest as a young heavy-metal musician.
Despite the scandal and the baking heat, the premiere was a success. Merkel wore a petrol-blue dress she had donned a few years earlier at Bayreuth -- and why not, these are hard times and it was a nice one. As she would doubtless say, there is no point preaching austerity if you don’t implement it.
Condemned to roam from European summit to European summit in search of a solution to the euro crisis, she may have sympathized with the ghostly Dutchman in Richard Wagner’s opera.
He plies the seas aimlessly, picking up random treasure, and is only permitted ashore every seven years. His sole hope of release from this tormented half-existence is the love of a woman who is faithful until death.
The Dutchman in Jan Philipp Gloger’s production appears on stage with a suitcase on wheels and a Styrofoam coffee cup as a burned-out, modern-day businessman traveling a loveless world to accumulate wealth. Disillusioned, he throws around his cash and even self-mutilates by cutting his arm.
Senta is an artist trapped in a consumer society, and they see each other as an escape route from their meaningless lives.
It’s a simple, coherent concept that works, within limits.
Ghost-ships and storms are done away with -- Gloger takes the sea as a metaphor for life’s confusion and tempests. Against a pitch-dark set, a projected installation flashes digits and circuit routes like an out-of-control data network.
Senta’s spinners are blue-uniformed factory workers packing desk fans into cardboard boxes. (In the sweltering, non-air-conditioned theater, many audience members must have longed for them all to be switched on and pointed in their direction.)
The heroine stands out from the spinners in a red dress, building a cardboard Dutchman and sailing ship with red paint and sticky tape while those around her focus on their day jobs.
The sailors’ chorus is sometimes made up of dark-suited businessmen bringing home dresses for their girlfriends; sometimes salesmen in cheap pale gray suits and cheesy smiles, brimming with excitement about the desk-top fans they hawk.
The trouble is that we do have choices in modern life, and making such parallels can diminish the desperation of the doomed. While the Dutchman bemoaned his cursed existence and failed suicide attempts in a suit and tie, coffee cup in hand, I found myself wondering why he doesn’t take a sabbatical if things have got that out of hand.
Instead of hurling herself off a cliff in sorrow at losing the Dutchman, Senta stabs herself and joins him on a pile of cardboard boxes. A cute final scene shows a design of the desk-top ventilator-fan created in their memory.
The waves, storms, gusts and currents of the sea were present in the music, even if lacking on stage. Christian Thielemann drew a wonderful performance from the orchestra -- brisk and light, yet missing nothing in depth and variety.
Youn sang beautifully with impressive range, and deserved his applause. He was as stiff as his cardboard alter-ego on stage, though -- perhaps through nerves and lack of rehearsals. Nikitin may have brought more presence and charisma to the role.
Adrianne Pieczonka made a powerful, persuasive Senta. Franz-Josef Selig was superb as her father, Daland, executing a little dance of delight with a suitcase on wheels at the prospect of marrying his daughter off to the wealthy Dutchman with his case of cash.
The Bayreuth Festival runs through Aug. 28.
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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