Rebels with a cause: Der fliegende Holländer at the Oper Stuttgart

Wagner – Der fliegende Holländer

Holländer – James Rutherford
Senta – Christiane Libor
Georg – Thomas Blondelle
Donald – Attila Jun
Steuermann – Torsten Hofmann
Mary – Idunnu Münch

Staatsopernchor Stuttgart, Zusatzchor der Oper Stuttgart, Staatsorchester Stuttgart / Georg Fritzsch
Stage director – Calixto Bieito.

Oper Stuttgart, Staatstheater, Stuttgart, Germany.  Sunday, January 8th, 2017.

Calixto Bieito’s Stuttgart staging of Der fliegende Holländer was premiered in the 2007/8 season at the same time as the banking crisis that hit Europe hard.  In many respects, it’s a meditation on the nature of capitalism and the need to rebel against it; yet it also focuses on how the elites have squandered the very money that was given to rescue them.  One could say that the symbolism is heavy-handed – the sailors are men in suits who appear in a lifeboat, led by the Steuermann who is a decadent older figure rather than the wistful youth we are used to.  For them, the Holländer is a saviour, distributing money to keep them going.  The parallels with the banking crisis are, certainly for me, undeniable.  The ladies’ spinning chorus is sung by what appears to be a group of Stepford wives – all big hair and big nails.  They sing over refrigerators to which Mary, an overseer in a pants suit, ties a rebellious Senta as she sings the Ballade.  The fridges are revealed to be full of food including some quite tempting-looking pieces of meat.

Der fliegende Holländer Richard Wagner In German with German supertitles Revival January 8, 2017 Musikalische Leitung: Georg Fritzsch Regie: Calixto Bieito Choreographische Mitarbeit: Lydia Steier Bühne: Susanne Gschwender, Rebecca Ringst Kostüme: Anna Eiermann Licht: Reinhard Traub Chor: Christoph Heil Dramaturgie: Xavier Zuber Auf dem Bild: James Rutherford (Der Holländer),  Attila Jun (Donald) Foto: Martin Sigmund

It may well be that many won’t be able to see beyond the fact that, other than the life raft, the sea is missing from this production.  Yet all Bieito does is based in a logical reading of the text.  For example as the ladies sing ‘das Schiffsvolk kommt mit leerem Magen’, this links directly to the food in the fridges.  And yet, Bieito also makes the Holländer a much more rounded and complex character than he often seems.  His redemption can only come from him rejecting the very system everybody else supports.  From highlighting Donald’s shamelessness in effectively selling his daughter (the theatre uses the 1841 version set in Scotland), Bieito also highlights the Holländer’s journey from threatening self-immolation (in protest against the system), to his rejection of money by giving it away.  He achieves this with the Holländer losing his business attire and instead embracing a new identity and life with Senta.  As the evening ends, we see them crouching at the front, surrounded by the crowd.  We don’t know what will happen to them but one thing is certain – life will never be the same again.  I found it a most perceptive and cogent theatrical argument.

Der fliegende Holländer

What also distinguished this revival was the sheer assurance and skills with which Bieito and tonight’s revival director, Nina Dudek, handle the large forces.  Compared with the visual confusion in last night’s Hofmann, I found it extremely impressive how Bieito fills the stage with characters, all of them appearing to be a group of clearly defined individuals, yet always manages to keep the focus on the principals – even in the presence of a naked gentleman with a large appendage and a lady whipping herself with her wig.  Surely the sign of a true theatrical master.

Der fliegende Holländer

Certainly the house chorus made a tremendous noise.  The gentlemen making a massive sound with good blend, the ladies well-tuned but with a few obtrusive vibratos.  The solo singing was of a very high standard.  Indeed, the diction was so good that it really helped focus on how the staging was based in the text.

Der fliegende Holländer

James Rutherford was a very good Holländer.  The voice is most attractive if perhaps somewhat on the narrow side.  I wouldn’t say it was the largest voice to have essayed the role and there were times where he was out-sung by his colleagues.  He was however thoroughly musical and it was always sung rather than barked.  His diction really is outstanding and he made every word tell, the role fully sung off the text.  Attila Jun was a massive Donald.  The voice is absolutely huge yet he also has a very healthy sound.  I wonder whether he has looked at the Holländer, it struck me that it might actually suit him.

Der fliegende Holländer

Christiane Libor was a most impressive Senta.  She showed a very good command of the passaggio in the Ballade and the voice is big and vibrant with an exciting, penetrating sound.  It doesn’t always spin on top and some of the higher, sustained declamatory writing had a tendency to sound tight and forced and yet, individual notes up high were thrilling in their theatre-filling amplitude.  It is an undeniably exciting instrument.  Thomas Blondelle was a lyrical and cultured Georg, his eloquent line contrasting starkly with the trailer park chic he was costumed in.  It’s a bright, clear and open sound though it did sound a little short on top with the registers not completely integrated.  Clearly a regular diet of Mozart helps him too, evidenced in his beautiful legato.  Idunnu Münch was a most distinctive Mary, sung in a youthful and fresh mezzo.

Der fliegende Holländer

The orchestra played extremely well for Georg Fritzsch.  From my seat it felt the balance was a little brass-heavy but the quality of the playing really was of the highest standards.  Fritzsch led a reading that certainly started excitingly enough with a surging, salty overture.  Tempi were for the most part sensible but the tension sagged a little too much in the Act 2 Holländer/Senta duet.  Otherwise his conducting was certainly reliable and he marshalled the large forces most successfully.

Der fliegende Holländer

I have no doubt that tonight’s performance divided the public between those who enjoyed the regie, those who were skeptical, and those who hated it.  I thought it a deeply convincing and revolutionary reading of the work.  In its focus on finding redemption in rebelling against the system and creating a new future, one could argue that it was being very true to the spirit of Wagner.  It was given a musically most satisfactory performance by a group of singers who really used the text to drive the drama forward.  It may not be like any Holländer we have seen before but, approached with an open mind, it really does have a lot to offer.  Certainly, the Stuttgart forces really did the work, and the vision of tonight’s director, full justice.

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