Androids, Fans, Boxes, & Figurines Do Not A Dutchman Make

Review by: Robert Levine


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 10

This is the production that got side-tracked three years ago when it was discovered that the singer to star in the opera, Evgeny Nitikin, had a tattoo of a swastika on his chest, which of course would be entirely out of place and taboo at Bayreuth. After that, I don’t recall reading about or hearing any more discussion of the production. This DVD makes clear that there was plenty to discuss.

The curtain opens on a black stage, with nary ship nor water in sight, save, stage front, for a small dinghy that eventually becomes visible, from which the Steersman and Daland emerge, wearing business suits. Streaks of white electric light flash and dart in the background and random numbers light up and change, as if things are being counted. It’s futuristic and somewhat alien.

A chorus of impeccably-groomed sailors wears identical blue-grey suits, like the Steersman; Daland is in a finer, double-breasted, three-piece striped suit. Out of the murk comes the Dutchman, complete with suitcase with wheels and cardboard coffee-cup in hand, the perpetual traveler. He is wearing a black suit and something is wrong with his head–it has black, metallic, patchy spots–he’s an android/banker. A long-limbed hooker tries to seduce him while he sings his opening monolog, but he rebuffs her; when he meets jolly old Daland-the-capitalist, he opens his metallic briefcase to show him wads and wads of money. The money-for-daughter arrangement made, the scene changes to a factory.

Cutely dressed factory-working women are putting electric fans in cardboard and wooden boxes, while Mary, their overseer, oversees. Only a lone figure in the back stands apart from the robotic “spinners”. It’s Senta, who is either crazier than or not as crazy as everyone else: maybe she just wants a way out of this industrialized world. Making a cardboard doll of a man, with black paint and packing tape, seems not to be the right way to do it, but what do we know?

Erik, an engineer in the factory, professes his love, but when Daland and Dutchie arrive, it’s hello, Vanderdecken, g’bye Erik. Everyone freezes. This freeze motif is a favorite gimmick of Director Jan Philipp Gloger. The cardboard/wooden fan-boxes get rearranged until they are like steps, and Dutchie and Senta climb upon them; he removes his black jacket (after putting down his champagne glass), to reveal a black T-shirt. Near the end of the Dutchman/Senta duet, she dons fake cardboard wings, painted black.

The last act finds us back on a black stage, with the spirited blue-suited salesman/sailors /factory workers entertained by merrily dressed women, singing up a storm and then freezing in place. The Steersman arrives and unfurls a banner–a new model fan! By then a flame pops out of stage rear and the black-clad, black-metallic-headed crew of the Dutch ship emerges; they holler, only somewhat dampening the proceedings, and leave. Erik confronts Senta, with Dutchie within earshot, and rips off her wings. She puts them back on. Dutchie denounces Senta; she climbs to the top of the boxes to join him, stabs herself with a piece of sharp wood and, I think, he dies in her arms or vice-versa. Curtain for one minute while the music of the Apotheosis begins. Curtain opens and we see a new product: miniature Dutchman and Senta (she be-winged) kissing atop miniature boxes. What’s love got to do with it?

Christof Hetzer’s sets certainly are effective if you find Gloger’s concept interesting; but haven’t we seen Wagner Industrialized before? And are we supposed to laugh or cry at the cute new mini-Senta-and-Dutchie dolls? All I know is that I want one.

Musically, the show borders on remarkable. Ricarda Merbeth’s Senta suffers slightly from close-ups–she’s a bit old to be behaving thusly and she perspires profusely (not a gentlemanly thing to say, but there it is)–but aside from some welcome wildness of delivery, there’s not a note out place, high-B after high-B rings bright and true. And her more inward vocal moments are just as effective–it’s a star performance in a production that frowns on such things, but it’s very welcome. Samuel Yuon’s Dutchman is dramatically a bit stifled by the am-I-an-android-Capitalist approach, but he delivers an enormous “Die Frist ist um”, his hale fellow well met with Daland, and seems quite happy with his purchase of Senta. But is it for salvation? He occasionally gets buried in the duet’s big orchestration, but the voice is a fine one and he’s an intelligent singer.

Franz-Josef Selig’s Daland is excellent, his round, firm tone used as much for humor as for business. Tomislav Muzek’s Erik is very strong, his last-act aria a vocal high point, but don’t Eriks always get lost in this opera? Benjamin Bruns as the Steersman–and possible tax accountant (who’s to say?)–is outgoing, his bright tone and superb diction crucial. And Christa Mayer’s Mary–I believe the implication is that she’s Daland’s wife–is imperious and keeps the girls working.

Christian Thielemann’s leadership is brilliant (he leads the one-act version), exciting, with pregnant pauses perfectly timed, mood changes just right. The Bayreuth Orchestra and Chorus–and especially the chorus–play and sing spectacularly. Subtitles are in all major European languages except Spanish and Italian (!) but including Korean. Picture and sound are ideal.

If this were CD-only–or if one made recommendations on oddity of production alone–this would be a front-runner, but the Regie approach, though not appalling, does not offer the same punch as the music does. It tells an interesting story, but is it Wagner’s? And the Dutchman’s? The old (mid-’90s) performance on DG, also from Bayreuth, in which the whole opera is seen as a state of Senta’s mental deterioration, is both fascinating and well sung; and the Savonlinna, Finland’s 1988 Festival show (Kultur), features the unbeatable Hildegard Behrens and Franz Grundheber, but is visually murky and the sound is not up to today’s standards. A conundrum. Go with early Bayreuth, although this new one can be heard without problems and you may just get a kick out of the production.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: This one; Simon Estes/Bayreuth (DG); Behrens/Savonlinna (Kultur)

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