Der fliegende Holl‰nder, Bavarian State Opera

Although the Bavarian State Opera eschewed Wagner’s
Tristan-esque revision – rightly, in my view, that working better for
Tannh‰user than The Flying Dutchman – this was not
Gˆtterd‰mmerung. Moreover, the end, as we experienced it, came more as
silence and alienation than a whimper; close, then, but probably not quite the
same. More important still, in retrospect – hindsight was inescapable on this
particular occasion – the real catastrophe, or rather news of it, came after
the end of the performance, the ‘real world’, as is far too often
the case at the moment, offering the keenest of tragedy. So perhaps I should
start again; I shall not, however, since I should like to start at the end,
indeed feel compelled to do so, lest tales of Mrs Lincoln and her critique of
the evening’s dramatic proceedings hover too close for comfort. For this
was an evening – thank God – never to be repeated, one that even the most
ambitious of stage directors would have struggled to envisage, let alone to
create. Without in any sense wishing to minimise Peter Konwitschny’s
achievement in this typically arresting, provocative, yet ultimately deeply, if
not unrelievedly, sympathetic production, only Karlheinz Stockhausen, and
before him Richard Wagner himself, might have come anywhere near this – and
even then, not so very near.

The music stopped, then, just before the final bars; the lights fell.
Silence fell too, the singers looking uneasily at each other: splendidly acted,
I remember thinking. Then, following that caesura – inevitable memories of
Konwitschny’s celebrated Meistersinger, even for those of us who
only heard tell – we heard the final bars, albeit from what sounded like a
distant, wind-up gramphone. I even wondered whether it might have been
Konwitschny pËre’s recording, rendered more ancient, not that
that matters. Redemption, then, was undercut not only by Wagner’s
Tristan-less ending. (I am skating over the more complex issues of
earlier versions, but that is not really the point here.) It was ironised – few
directors manage to ironise Wagner successfully; Konwitschny does – by hearing
it as something we all knew, all expected, were more or less hearing in our
heads anyway, and yet then did not hear as we should. It was a little like King
Marke’s appearance in Die Meistersinger: meaningful,
consequential, a modernist rather than a post-modernist quotation.

Then we spilled out onto the Max-Joseph-Platz, quite unaware of
Munich’s terrorist lockdown. My telephone had no reception; I could not
contact a friend, to see whether he had been there or not. (It later transpired
that he had not.) Many of my fellow opera-leavers seemed puzzled. We could not,
for instance, enter a restaurant on the other side of the square; although a
few people in there were eating, the doors were locked. Whilst trying to find
out what was going on, I eventually received a call from my father, to check
that I was safe; he began to explain, and armed police came into view. I
learned after that those who were less quick on their feet than I had been were
unable to leave the Nationaltheater for quite some time. I, however, had little
choice but to try to walk back to where I was staying, armed police and other
advisors pointing me and others first in one direction, then in another, often
seeming to disagree with each other. Meanwhile, so far as I was aware – this
was not the case, but it was what everyone seemed to think at the time – the
U-Bahn was closed, since one of several gunmen (there was, of course, only one)
had gone down there, armed. Walking past Odeonsplatz station was a little
frightening, then; but it was the eeriness of the evacuated beer festival in
the square – when I had walked to the opera, it had been full of beer, music,
Dirndls, Lederhosen – that, if anything, chilled more. Having spoken to my
brother too, I made it back to my host’s, who filled me in on events
unfolded and unfolding – and immediately poured me a much-needed drink.

I learned much later that what I ‘should’ have seen and heard –
Barry Millington had sent me his review of the production, but I had not read
it at the time – was Senta, clearly furious with the Dutchman for not having
trusted enough, setting one of the quayside barrels ablaze and mount her own
act of terror. The explosion I ‘should’ have heard – unlike
Wagner’s music, I did not know it – never came; darkness and alienation,
nevertheless curiously, chillingly effective, did. No wonder so many onstage
‘acted’ confused; they had not, it seems, been acting at all.
Presumably many had suspected a technical problem. The Bavarian State Opera
had, it seems, decided to pull the explosion. For those in the know, was this
perhaps a bit like ‘hearing’ Mahler’s missing third
hammer-blow in the Sixth Symphony? (Thank goodness this was not a Mahler
evening: that really would have been too much.) And so, the business of
interpreting, reinterpreting, a particularised version of Konwitschny’s
staging – never, let us hope, to be repeated – truly got under way; or at least
it did in the odd couple of seconds between replying to anxious Facebook and
Twitter messages from friends. (Why, they wondered, had I not replied? Most of
them had no idea, of course, that I had been in the theatre for nearly
two-and-a-half hours, without an interval.) I shall never forget the non-bang
and the gramophone whimper, nor the further step our wretched world made
towards Gˆtterd‰mmerung.

Let me turn, though, to what I had seen and heard before. My memory and my
experience are doubtless coloured by the ‘other’ events of that
night. Nevertheless, what I saw and heard was impressive indeed, on its own
terms. Our friends at
Against Modern Opera Productions
– how chilling it was to see, that very
night, them railing, as if Hitler had never fallen, against
‘degenerate’ artists – might even have liked, had they not seen the
word ‘Konwitschny’, the realistic designs from Johannes Leiacker,
with which the mise-en-scËne opens. For it is a (German) Romantic,
even Gothic landscape that provides the backdrop. Apart from anything else,
this is a ghost story: every one of us, every society, is overwhelmed by ghosts
from our pasts. So too, of course, is opera. Nevertheless, ships are definitely
ships; the sea and sky are definitely the sea and sky. The Dutchman’s
crew, moreover, are most definitely Golden Age Dutchmen. The painterliness is,
in one sense at least, ironic. AMOP would not have ‘got’ that;
representations and their deconstruction would have gone unnoticed,
uncomprehended. They would surely, though, have noticed the heightened venality
not only of Daland, but his crew too (modern Norwegians, but as yet, not with
an overwhelming Wagnerian clash between ghostly visitors and the
‘present’). Daland’s pockets of a few golden chains; the
Steersman crowns himself with a golden crown; the other lads eagerly join in
the bonanza: there is much jewellery to be had from the new ship’s
Cardillac-like cargo, unless, as one of Wagner’s less-eagerly
acknowledged forebears might have advised him, ‘L’or est une
chimËre’. A chimera of another variety haunts the Dutchman: the Angel in
white who visits the stage. This Dutchman is a man, with sexual fantasies of
his own; they distract him, pave the way for tragedy; they lead us to the
second act.

Our opera-as-Pegida acquaintances would certainly have started screaming
degeneracy, at the deliberate scenic contrast when the curtain rose upon that
act. This is a swish health club, in which the wheels that spin are those on
the exercise bicycles. Mary leads the class, the girls engaged in the uneasy
camaraderie and rivalry of the mindless heteronormative pursuit for an
‘ideal’ physical form to please ‘the’ men they have
either hooked or would like to hook. (Or is it the other way round?) Spinning,
one might say, takes more than one guise: old visiting new, new visiting old;
connections abound. Senta does not fit in; she arrives late for the class, and
is far more interested in her Romantic painting. Erik is a creepy yet impatient
voyeur: no mere innocent he. Yet it is Senta’s disruptive presence,
encouraged by the reappearing Angel, that ultimately, prophetically, proves the
turning point. It sets in process the Brechtian – house lights on – lecture to
the audience she and the Dutchman give at the close of the act. ‘Romantic
love? Yeah, right…’ Everything, then, is set up to fail, as it
increasingly does during the third act, modernity and caricatured Old Dutchmen
engaging in violent combat, the past, as it so often is, victorious – not least
because the present refuses to learn from it. And then – well, you have heard
the rest. Explosion there comes – on this occasion, came there not.

The cast was distinguished. Catherine Naglestad trod to powerful, even
searing effect the line between, on the one hand, twin incitement to
Verfremdung and terror, and on the other, heartfelt, Romantic or
neo-Romantic ‘feminine’ suffering. Her top notes – and not just her
top notes – thrilled; we were reminded that the female redemption problematized
by Konwitschny, by us more generally, is, not only in Wagner but in so much
opera, often effected through vocal presence. Johan Reuter traced this complex
Dutchman’s mood swings with great skill; we sympathised with, even
followed, his distractions and his demons. Matti Salminen’s final Daland
– so, at any rate, I was informed – was a bluff yet knowing performance, a fine
tribute to a great artist. Wookyung Kim came close to stealing the show with
his sensitively sung, far-from-pushover Erik. Okka von der Damerau imparted
dramatic as well as ‘merely’ musical meaning to the role of Mary,
and Dean Power proved as appealing and as intriguing a Steersman as I can
recall having heard. Choral singing was wonderfully full-blooded too. All,
then, engaged with Wagner’s work as living drama.

The Bavarian State Orchestra was, unsurprisingly, in its element here. Its
playing encompassed all manner of shades from darkest, grimmest of musical
tragedy to echoes of Mendelssohn and Weber, apparently – if only apparently –
more blithe, even fairy-like. This was orchestral Wagner as outstanding as one
might hear from Daniel Barenboim’s Staatskapelle Berlin. Asher Fisch
might have benefited from a more Barenboim-like sense of the work’s
melos ; or at least he would have done for me, my preference being
very much for a more ‘musico-dramatic’, less
‘number-opera’ approach to the work. The latter is, of course,
perfectly justifiable in theory, but it tends, unless more strongly
incorporated into a sense of an unbroken whole, to make parts of the work drag
– especially when, as here, numbers such as Senta’s Ballad, are taken so
slowly. Fisch undoubtedly knew what he was doing, though; he had me, on more
than one occasion, rethink, rehear. The waltzing at the end of the first act –
perfectly in keeping with fantasies venal and sexual, visually as well as
musically realised – pointed far into the musico-dramatic future, to Strauss as
well as to the integrative tendencies of later Wagner. The Flying
is in some ways the most difficult Wagner drama of all to bring
off musically; no one would have been seriously disappointed, if at all, by
this performance.

The rest was silence; until, that is, it became the noise of chaos.

Mark Berry

Cast and production details:

Daland: Matti Salminen; Senta: Catherine Nagelstad; Erik: Wookyung Kim;
Mary: Okka von der Damerau; Steersman: Dean Power; Dutchman: Johan Reuter.
Director: Peter Konwitschny; Deisgns: Johannes Leiacker; Lighting: Michael
Bauer; Dramaturgy: Werner Hintze; Chorus and Extra Chorus of the Bavarian State
Opera (chorus master: S¯ren Eckhoff)/Bavarian State Orchestra/Asher Fisch
(conductor). Nationaltheater, Munich, Friday 22 July 2016.

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