Der fliegende Holländer

Johannes Debus
Canadian Opera Company Chorus and Orchestra
May 2010
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts Toronto
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
DalandMats Almgren
SentaJulie Makarov
ErikRobert Künzli
MaryBarbara Dever
Der Steuermann DalandsAdam Luther
Der HolländerJewgeni Nikitin
Stage Door

Musically, the COC’s revival of The Flying Dutchman is a triumph. Of the three times the company has staged Christopher Alden’s production of Wagner’s early opera, the current cast is the strongest. Alden’s direction is a mixture of deep insights and unhelpful peculiarities, but, in general, the few oddities do little to dampen the power of the experience.

The Dutchman of legend is cursed with immortality, condemned to sail the world forever and allowed to land only one day every seven years to seek salvation in the true love of a woman. In Wagner’s version the Dutchman (Evgeny Nikitin) has the good luck to meet the mercenary sea captain Daland (Mats Almgren), who is willing to marry his daughter Senta (Julie Makarov) to him in exchange for the Dutchman’s treasure. A second stroke of luck is that Senta has long been deeply obsessed with the story of the Dutchman and has always wished to save him.

We are thus in the world of dreams and the uncanny. Designer Allen Moyer captures this atmosphere in a box set tilted at steep angle to serve for all scenes on ship and on land. Anne Militello’s ever-changing lighting creates an aura of fantasy. Moyer’s costuming places the action in the 1920s and the makeup and movement of the actors are reminiscent of German Expressionist films such as Nosferatu and Metropolis. Indeed, Alden suggests that pointless journey of the Dutchman and his ghostly crew are a frightening reflection of the highly mechanized and dehumanized lives of the living.

Nikitin is hugely impressive as the Dutchman with dark yet gleaming bass baritone. Makarov has never sounded so powerful as Senta’s dream becomes reality fusing love and death. Almgren’s tone was strangely muddy, but Robert Künzli shone as Senta’s maddened would-be fiancé Erik as did Adam Luther as the Steersman. Unfortunately, Alden’s attempts to involve the Steersman more fully in the action only leads to confusion. Meanwhile, the COC chorus sings gloriously and the COC Orchestra glows white-hot under the tight control of Johannes Debus, who masterfully evokes Wagner’s storm-tossed world of natural, emotional and mental instability.

Christopher Hoile

The COC’s expressionist production of Der fliegende Holländer made a stunning impact when previously performed (in 1996 and 2000) in the 3200-seat former home of the company. Its effect is magnified in the 2100-seat Four Seasons Centre.

The action takes place in a giant tilted wooden box. Its shape and materials help intensify the sound. Changes of locale are indicated mainly by lighting. A sail serves to indicate Daland’s ship, but we never see the Dutchman’s ghost ship. Instead, there are indications of a hard-to-define sense of creeping dread that overtakes the stage action. One example: we are aware of people lurking among the box’s underpinnings.

Director Christopher Alden has moved the action forward in time. Costumes are in the fashion of the 1920s. The Dutchman’s portrait is in the style of German expressionism, and the village women are styled like figures in a Ludwig Kirchner painting. At key moments the separate women’s and men’s choruses move in oppressive unison. Hinted at, but never made totally explicit, is the furtive menace of Nazism in 1920s Germany.

When the ghost crew finally answer back to the sailors of Daland’s ship during the extended scene starting with Steuermann! Laß die Wacht, an offstage chorus is amplified in such a way that the sound comes from nowhere and everywhere all at once. The effect is that of a group dementia overtaking the society portrayed on stage.

There is, however, one problem with the set arising from the fact that it was originally designed to fit the wider stage of the COC’s former performance venue. Important stage action frequently takes place at the extreme edges of the box and thus a part of the audience misses out. It’s a pity that the set couldn’t be narrowed a couple of meters, which would also have made it even more effectively claustrophobic.

The cast is uniformly strong vocally. The sheer attractiveness of Evgeny Nikitin’s voice helps emphasize the dramatic point that the Dutchman, too, is a haunted victim of the nameless menace.

Julie Makerov is a fine Senta, perhaps signalling her entry into more dramatic roles. She varies the dynamics nicely, deftly accompanied by conductor and orchestra.

Mats Almgren’s huge, baleful voice rings out as the opportunistic Daland (a direct descendant of the role he last performed with the COC, the jailor Rocco in Fidelio).

Robert Künzli is a bit of a chameleon tenor. In a role like Mime, his voice takes on the requisite character tone, while for Erik he adopts an appropriate leading man sound. Another innovation in this staging is that Senta dies when Erik shoots her with the huntsman’s rifle he always carries. Wagner’s stage direction is for her to sacrifice herself by leaping into the sea. The shooting has extra shock value, yet it does not undermine her self-sacrifice.

Adam Luther gives us another solid comprimario performance in the role of the Steersman. Barbara Dever is a vocally strong Mary, described usually as Senta’s nurse, but in this production taking more the role of Senta’s mother (we see the bridal procession).

This is Johannes Debus’s first production as Music Director of the COC. (His single previous engagement, when he conducted War and Peace, turned out to be his rampagingly successful tryout.) It is also his first time conducting Der Fliegende Holländer, although he has coached it previously. It is as energetic as it ought to be and orchestra/singer balances, always a fraught issue in the Wagner repertory, are fine. He will be conducting two productions next season – Aïda and Die Zauberflöte – we look forward to those.

After many year’s absence, this and other COC productions will be broadcast at a later date on the CBC’s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera. It will be interesting to simply listen to it without the intensely dramatic staging of this production.

Michael Johnson

The Flying Dutchman: Staging swamps talented cast

John Terauds

People listening in to CBC Radio 2’s broadcast of the Canadian Opera Company’s remount of Richard Wagner’s 1843 opera The Flying Dutchman in a few weeks will get a four-star experience, if the orchestra and singers shine as brightly as they did at Saturday’s opening performance. But, to these eyes, the production itself is severely diminished visually by a depressing set and a director who wants to add is own interpretation to Wagner’s libretto.

While the ghostly ship’s captain, condemned to haunt the high seas unless he is redeemed by the unconditional love of a woman, doesn’t get any good news in this tall tale, this production, first seen in Toronto in 1996, and again in 2000, at least has some gorgeous music going for it. From the moment music director Johannes Debus set his baton in motion, the COC Orchestra was in full, glorious flight. There is power, but also a great deal of lyricism, delivered with style and precision.

The international vocal cast is terrific, with particular bouquets of praise due to Russian baritone Evgeny Nikitin, who also embodies a magnetic mix of power and pathos in his rich, powerful and flexible voice, and American soprano Julie Makerov as Senta, who has spent years waiting for her chance to save the cursed sailor. It took Makerov a little while to warm up, but, when she did, the was every inch the ringing life force that Wagner intended. German tenor Robert Künzli was also in excellent form as Senta’s romantic stalker, Erik.

Kudos go to Swedish bass Mats Almgren as Senta’s father and mezzo Barbara Dever as Mary. Sandra Horst’s chorus, split by gender through most of the 2 ½-hour opera, has never sounded better.

Had everyone simply stood onstage, the experience would have been more satisfying than seeing director Christopher Alden turn the Dutchman into a B-movie zombie who stumbles and staggers as he searches for the next wall to bang into. Küntzli was stuck pointing his shotgun at everyone in sight — except when he was wrestling on the raked floor with Makerov.

Designer Allen Moyer’s set, overburdened with concentration-camp allusions, is a giant, bunker-grey box set at a nasty tilt. Wagner’s gorgeous duets were largely sung from the back of the box, which made me wonder if patrons in the fifth ring were able to see what was going on. The Flying Dutchman, which contains the musical and thematic seeds of everything that would later make Wagner famous, is a sturdy fable-cum-doomed love story that works best when a director leaves well enough alone — especially when the musical talents are this strong.

The Globe and Mail

Richard Wagner’s myth-based fourth opera The Flying Dutchman is awkward to rationalize for today’s audiences. It has all the implausibility of the Dracula story but it lacks the kinky sexual allure of that perennially rejuvenant affair. If Wagner had not invested it with his mature genius, we’d not be hearing much any more about the provisionallydamned and eternally restless, zombie-like Dutchman and his dreadful one-day-each-seven-years search for the redemptive love of a pure woman, which love would allow him at last to stop sailing and die.

But Wagner did say that The Flying Dutchman had opened out his career as a true poet of the lyric art, and his powerful imprimatur, along with the work’s merits and challenges, have kept it in the repertoire.

The Canadian Opera Company’s revival of Allen Moyer’s 1996 production, which opened Saturday night for eight performances, reasserted some of the merits, did not overcome all of the challenges, but did bask in the high quality of most of the singing by the principals and chorus.

The Russian bass Evgeny Nikitin brought a steady, handsome, supple sound to his grim and baleful portrayal of the Dutchman. American soprano Julie Makerov sang Senta, his redeemer, quite beautifully, except for touches of flatness in the top notes of her Ballad in Act Two. Makerov’s voice is an ideal Wagnerian lyric, warm, firm and focused. It even helped us not to mind her frumpy costumes. Swedish bass Mats Almgren has an unusual voice which not everyone will like, but it is rich, vibrant and virile, and he used it to great effect in his portrayal of Daland, Senta’s venal ship-captain father, willing to trade her for the Dutchman’s wealth. German tenor Robert Kunzli was passionate and persuasive as Erik, Senta’s erstwhile, ordinary lover.

Canadian tenor Adam Luther and American mezzo-soprano Barbara Dever served well in the smaller roles of Daland’s steersman and Senta’s mother.

Wagner’s score was enhanced by our hearing it as he originally conceived it: uninterrupted by intermissions. On the other hand, conductor Johannes Debus, in cahoots with stage director Christopher Alden, somehow kept the overall pace a bit sluggish.

In the score’s major encounter between Senta and the Dutchman, so prophetic of later Wagner, everything becomes static. Of course these yearning lovers do not touch, they theorize. They haltingly discuss. They indulge in simultaneous soliloquies. Finally, after this seemingly endless prevaricating rumination, Senta, the pushier and more obsessed of the two, takes off the Dutchman’s enveloping dusty black cloak, revealing him in horizontally striped pyjamas (perhaps he didn’t take time to dress before he came ashore?) divesting him at the same time of his dignity.

None of this helped quicken the pace, or the blood. A kind of implacable deliberation won out over the most advanced and original music of Wagner’s score. Conductor, director and designer were all implicated here. I do think the conductor should have been the deciding authority.

Moyer’s stage design itself remains rather good, despite being a diagonally divided box, essentially unchanged throughout except for a few moveable details and Anne Militello’s adroit lighting. But generally, even though it was a one-size-fits-all abstraction, it worked.

And I much admired the singing.

Ken Winters

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Media Type/Label
Premiere 5690
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 345 MByte (MP3)
There are some cracks.
Broadcast (CBC 2)
A production by Christopher Alden