Der fliegende Holländer

Pablo Heras-Casado
Coro y Orquesta Titulares del Teatro Real
20/23 December 2016
Teatro Real Madrid
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
DalandKwangchul Youn
SentaIngela Brimberg
ErikNikolai Schukoff
MaryKai Rüütel
Der Steuermann DalandsBenjamin Bruns
Der HolländerSamuel Youn
Stage directorÀlex Ollé (La fura dels Baus)
Set designerAlfons Flores
TV directorStéphane Vérité
Opera News

The Grounded Dutchman

Àlex Ollé’s surprisingly sane telling of Wagner’s curious tale is fanciful but psychologically sensible.

OPERA PRODUCTIONS by Àlex Ollé, head of the Catalan theater company La Fura dels Baus, are often big as all outdoors—too big for the camera in many cases, as in this 2016 Holländer from Teatro Real de Madrid. Don’t expect a towering, spooky phantom ship, or an extravagantly distorted one. Stormy seas erupt, however, thanks to video projections during the overture and finale, complementing the orchestral turmoil. And the Dutchman’s ghostly crew emerges in striking images, ending up frozen in place as if made of ice or marble.

The camera stays close to the principals, whose gestures are as focused and dynamic as their singing. Ollé’s props and symbols are provocative, with the female chorus carrying metal buckets (as they sing of spinning wheels); some wield cleaning brushes, others needlework. Sand is everywhere, and the women do their handiwork on a beach, most of them in headscarves. Is this a Near Eastern Dutchman?

Despite such distractions, though, what comes through on the small screen looks surprisingly like a sane telling of this curious tale, fanciful but psychologically grounded. The director treats Senta as obsessed, moody and willful—not crazed. In the duet with the Dutchman, she betrays signs of conflict, as if mindful of her vows to Erik. And when she signals her fidelity at the end by smearing her face and arms with white mud—there’s no leap into the sea or apotheosis—it feels somehow affecting and relevant.

The performance benefits greatly from the focused conducting of Pablo Heras-Casado, whose pacing and style are bracing. He approaches the music as a storyteller, not with bombast or over-refinement. Rather than the extreme contrasts so often heard (or aspired to) in Senta’s ballad, the scene moves in stages of intensity, like self-hypnosis. The conductor has the principals and chorus living their words, molding their musical lines, balancing control and abandon. Slow tempos, especially in the lovers’ duet, stay taut and dynamic, and dialogue scenes benefit from orchestral restraint. There’s much to relish in Heras-Casado’s transparent textures and subtle transitions between scenes.

The cast is led by plush bass-baritone Samuel Youn, tortured-looking in white makeup and black-circled eyes; his singing is astute and vibrant. As Senta, Ingela Brimberg is intense but not giddy; vocally, she’s natural and direct, armed with forceful top notes at the climaxes. Tenor Nikolai Schukoff, for all the star quality of some pinging tone and a macho presence, grapples awkwardly with Erik’s willowy lyrical lines. As Daland, Kwangchul Youn has a veteran’s aplomb and a deft comic sense, while Benjamin Bruns contributes a bright-voiced Steuermann. Chorus and orchestra perform like practiced Wagnerians.

David J. Baker | JUNE 2018 — VOL. 82, NO. 12


In a short booklet essay, the director of this Fliegende Holländer, Àlex Ollé, tells us that he and his creative team constantly asked themselves the same question: ‘Could a story like this happen today?’ In trying to answer it, he goes on, they came across the Bangladeshi port of Chittagong, where old ships are taken or dumped, to be dismantled or to rot.

This forms the basis for his staging and explains some of the production’s more unexpected touches. The Spinning Chorus features a group of women on a dirty beach in headdresses sorting through junk. Erik is a mercenary soldier; we’re in a place of poverty and bartering, where one might actually imagine a sea captain giving away his daughter for the right price.

And as you’d expect from a Fura dels Baus show, there’s an impressive scenic grandeur on display. Video projections conjure up the storm-tossed sea in the Overture (although the camera direction spends most of it concentrating on the pit) as well the ghostly crew that clambers up the prow of the vast vessel that appears at the start of Act 1 – gradually taken apart as the evening progresses. The sandy stage floor, variously lit, suggests the bottom of the ocean as much as a beach, and the Dutchman’s arrival is marked by the descent of an enormous anchor from the flies.

Indeed, the fact that he seems often to be singing underground makes one think as much of Alberich as Wagner’s ghostly aquatic wanderer. This might also have something to do with Samuel Youn’s singing of the role: always at a high pressure, and with a characterisation that, rather than offering tragic nobility, tends to range between snarling anger and borderline insanity. One notices more than ever, then, the shifts in the music’s idiom between fateful Weltschmerz and the jollier exchanges with Daland, here sung by the ever-reliable Kwangchul Youn.

There’s nevertheless an undeniable intensity in Samuel Youn’s exchanges with Ingela Brimberg’s Senta, who fills out her phrases impressively. Nikolai Schukoff is excellent as Erik, Benjamin Bruns is an eloquent Steersman and Kai Rüütel a pleasingly rich-voiced Mary. Pablo Heras-Casado conducts a swift, efficient account of the score, played well enough by the Madrid orchestra, but doesn’t really plumb the depths. Nor, ultimately, does the production. On its own terms, though, it’s an impressive and engaging show.

Hugo Shirley | Issue 01/2018

Musically, this Flying Dutchman is very good. The cast of singers, for a start, are properly excellent. Samuel Youn makes a forceful, world-weary Dutchman who summons up singing of great power in his opening scene and embodies the tragic heroism of the character as well as anyone I’ve seen. In one of its few successful ideas, Alex Ollé’s visual picture sets him apart in a blueish-green light which underlines not only his ghostliness but also his loneliness, and that sense of a man apart comes across in singing of power and heft. He is matched by bass singing from Kwangchul Youn that is every bit as powerful, but much more humane and identifiable. His Daland remains a venal old codger, but Youn sings him with rare nobility, and his exchange with the Dutchman in the first act is, unusually, one of the most gripping episodes in the opera, with two great bass-baritones sparring off against one another in a superb piece of musical theatre.

Likewise, Ingela Brimberg need fear comparisons with no other Senta on record. She sings the part with power, heroism and also great vocal beauty. Her key narration in Act 2 is full of the storyteller’s gift, and her duet with the Dutchman is magnificent. It serves as the pivot of the whole work, as well it should, and the chemistry between the two is wonderful; but she is also flawlessly accurate, and fearless in the blazing top notes she manages in the final scene. Nikolai Schukoff is an exciting, heroic Erik, and we get a nicely pingy Steersman from Benjamin Bruns.

In the pit, the orchestra of the Teatro Real play with Mediterranean sunlight but, more importantly, great beauty, showing that Madrid can more than hold its own as a Wagner house when compared with the Liceu. Only Pablo Heras-Casado lets the side down slightly. He isn’t a natural in Wagner, and his conducting is rather stop-start and episodic.

Much of his pacing is rushed through to get to the next scene so that the work’s internal architectural cohesion crumbles somewhat: for example, he disastrously squanders the climax of Senta’s duet with the Dutchman. However, there is a lot of potential there, and if he returns to it in a few years’ time he may well produce something really impressive.

The production is a bit of a pig’s ear, unfortunately. Alex Ollé, best known for his work with the revolutionary physical theatre company La Fura dels Baus, has good form in Wagner, contributing to the Valencia Ring that so impressed me (review). His central idea here is nothing like so successful, however. In his (singularly unconvincing) booklet essay, he writes on the one hand of embracing the work’s mythical, Romantic landscape and, on the other, asking whether it could happen now. His very tenuous solution is to set the opera in the Bangladeshi city of Chittagong, famous for its huge ship breaking yard, and so the visual imagery of the staging contains some very unconvincing South Asian tableaux and an entirely unnecessary comparison of both the Dutchman’s crew and the ladies of the chorus with the poor who harvest parts from the dismantled ships. I found it very odd, and actually a little tasteless in places. However, there are some impressive visual projections for the storm scenes, more in the eye-popping vein that we have come to expect from La Fura dels Baus.

This, therefore, is one to listen to with the screen switched off; but if you do that then you’ll really like what you hear. The booklet is thin and there are no extras, but the handsome cardboard case includes both a BD and a DVD, which is generous. Picture and sound quality are excellent throughout.

Simon Thompson | March 2018

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Harmonia Mundi
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