Senta’s Dream: Der fliegende Holländer at the Oper Köln

Wagner – Der fliegende Holländer

Holländer – James Rutherford
Senta – Ingela Brimberg
Erik – Maximilian Schmitt
Daland – Karl-Heinz Lehner
Steuermann – Kim Seungjick
Mary – Dalia Schechter

Extra-Chor der Oper Köln, Chor der Oper Köln, Gürzenich-Orchester Köln / François-Xavier Roth.
Stage director – Benjamin Lazar.

Oper Köln, Staatenhaus Saal 1, Cologne, Germany.  Sunday, April 2nd, 2023.

How much of our childhood fantasies do we hold on to as we grow older? How do we make amends with our pasts and move on?  These appear to be the starting points for Benjamin Lazar’s new staging of Der fliegende Holländer at the Oper Köln, premiered tonight under house music director François-Xavier Roth.  I write appear as it’s not quite certain that this is what he’s aiming for, but that’s my reading of it.  He uses the full width of the house’s ersatz auditorium at the Staatenhaus with a set, by Adeline Caron, that resembles the deck of a ship, with the orchestra placed in the middle, and the action taking place around them.  Eight light panels at the back also set the scene. 

Photo: © Karl & Monika Forster

The Staatenhaus normally functions as an exposition centre and so is a less than optimal environment for opera.  Lazar adds to the action two shipping containers – one contains what appears to be Senta’s boudoir, with photos of her fantasies of the Holländer on the wall, the other, well I can’t really tell you because I couldn’t see from my seat.  It’s disappointing that Lazar did not check and confirm the sightlines during the rehearsal as a fair bit of the action happens at the extremities of the set and so invisible to those on the sides – and indeed less than optimally audible to them also.  Furthermore, the house has suspended a pair of speakers over the stage, which also blocks views of the action at the edges. 

Photo: © Karl & Monika Forster

Lazar has Ingela Brimberg’s Senta appear throughout the overture and Act 1, perambulating around the set in a business suit, hence my understanding that all we are seeing is Senta’s recollection on events.  The Holländer and his crew show up and similarly wander around as if zombified.  Personenregie is fairly rudimentary – the chorus enter in Act 1 swaying around, and I’m still trying to figure out if they were meant to be blown around or whether they were, in fact, trashed.  A mysterious shape covered in plastic is left at the front of the set.  This, it transpires, is a giant doll that’s constructed by the women during the spinning chorus and burned by Senta at the end (sorry, spoiler) as if to finally escape from her past.  I did find how Lazar staged the Act 3 merriment as a brawl, with the townspeople fighting the Holländer’s unresponsive zombie crew very interesting.  Elsewhere, however, there seemed to be a genuine lack of chemistry between the three main leads.  Perhaps this was the point, to portray three people who are each obsessed with the other, but unable to get the other to understand that obsession, but the fact that they seemed to barely relate to each other made the two hours and twenty minutes feel very long indeed. I also felt that Lazar didn’t contextualize the events sufficiently – is Senta trying to forget her youthful fantasies as a way to escape memories of abuse, for example? Replaying childhood memories in her head?  The idea is potent, it’s just that the staging as a whole feels half-baked and unfinished. 

Photo: © Karl & Monika Forster

Musically, there were some positive aspects, not least Roth’s conducting.  In many respects it was revelatory.  He reminded us that this is music that emerges from German romanticism, bringing out an elegance to the writing that reminded one of Mendelssohn.  Another positive aspect was that he asked his strings to play frequently senza vibrato, which gave the string textures a leanness and grace that one does not always hear in this score.  Perhaps as a result of the acoustic, there were times where, despite Roth’s brisk tempi, forward momentum dipped – something that is most uncharacteristic of his work – and the orchestral sound was recessed throughout, though this meant that the voices were forward.  String intonation was superb all night, although the horns were a bit accident prone with quite a few split notes.  There were also a few ragged entries, perhaps betraying that this was a first night, and will surely settle during the run.  The chorus, prepared by Rustam Samedov, was on terrifically lusty form, singing with plentiful amplitude and striking discipline of approach – no ragged entries from them.

Photo: © Karl & Monika Forster

James Rutherford is an extremely experienced exponent of the role.  Indeed, I saw him sing it in Stuttgart a few years ago.  His diction is absolutely immaculate, the role truly sung off the text, in exemplary German.  The voice, however, is starting to show signs of the demanding repertoire he’s specialized in taking its toll.  There’s a dryness to the tone now that I don’t remember from before and the vibrations have loosened.  This has forced him to pay even more attention to the text and use an even wider palette of dynamics – and he most certainly lasted the course.  His was, without doubt, an insightful reading of the part.

Photo: © Karl & Monika Forster

Brimberg’s Senta was interesting.  I’ve felt before with her that she’s a lyric soprano who’s taken on a heavier repertoire and today confirmed that impression in my mind.  The voice has a paleness as icy as a North Sea wind.  Her diction is also clear, singing the role off the text.  The top is there, but it doesn’t open up and bloom as one might expect.  I found her intonation to be more reliable today than on the previous occasions I have heard her, perhaps due to a more sensitive conductor she felt able to take her foot off the gas a little.  The other aspect I found in Brimberg’s performance was that there was a sense that her Senta was a little passive.  It was all prettily sung, but I’m afraid to say that the mind wandered during her long scenes.  It didn’t hold the attention, compel one to listen in the way that one would have hoped she would. 

Photo: © Karl & Monika Forster

Maximilian Schmitt is a singer who has given me a great deal of pleasure over the years in Mozart.  His Erik was lyrically sung, in a bright, forward and well-placed tenor.  His elegance of phrasing was gratifying to listen to.  He did come to grief a little in his final duet with Senta, the long lines not quite fully sustained.  Still, it was pleasant to hear.  Karl-Heinz Lehner was a lighter voiced Daland than one often hears in the role, the centre of gravity in the voice higher up, although he did have plenty of juice lower down.  Dalia Schechter was a characterful Mary, sung in a piquant mezzo, while Kim Seungjick sang a beautifully mellifluous Steuermann in a graceful tenor. 

Photo: © Karl & Monika Forster

This was an interesting evening in the theatre, but one, I’m afraid to say, that left me rather underwhelmed.  Lazar’s staging is an interesting premise, but also one that doesn’t feel fully explained or contextualized – and the sightlines are problematic.  The singing was serviceable and was certainly textually very clear throughout the entire cast.  Roth’s conducting gave a great deal of pleasure and felt revelatory in so many respects, but the acoustic issues of the room meant that the orchestral playing lacked the maximum impact, while the choral singing was deliciously lusty.  The audience rewarded the entire cast and production team with a polite ovation. 

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