Der fliegende Holländer: Red scare

I would put last night’s Der fliegende Holländer into the third quintile of Wiener Staatsoper revivals. Christine Mielitz’s production has been sketchily and statically staged and was plagued with technical calamities, but it’s still interesting. Peter Schneider’s conducting was reasonably exciting and Adrianne Pieczonka’s Senta and Stephen Gould’s Erik are both good. And none of the rest is that bad.

“Richard Wagner, Der fliegende Holländer, romantic opera in three acts by Richard Wagner [sic, that’s what it says in the program–except in German].” Wiener Staatsoper, 2/12/2011. Production by Christine Mieilitz (revival) conducted by Peter Schneider with Albert Dohmen (Dutchman), Adrianne Pieczonka (Senta), Stephen Gould (Erik), Walter Fink (Daland).

This production was one of the more controversial efforts of the Staatsoper’s verfliegende Holender, former intendant Ioan Holender. Vienna gets its panties in a twist easily; this is not exactly high-level provocation.

Mielitz’s work here is interesting, but in this revival it came across as scattered. As is the norm for Staatsoper revivals, the direction of the singers was non-existent, the production reduced to the visual elements and a few static stage images. The numerous technical issues–mistimed (I think) lighting cues, creaky set changes, stuck curtains–didn’t help either. I want to be generous, because who knows what resemblance this performance bore to her original vision. I know I say something to this effect in almost review I write of rep performances, but it really bears remembering.

Some technical frailty was understandable, because Stefan Mayer’s set is complex (and not easy to make out in either of these photos, both of which are from the beginning of Act 2). A boat-like curved floor is contained in a bourgeois room, with a moving ramp, various appearing and disappearing walkways, and a catwalk above where Daland apparently keeps his birds (in cages). The red sails of the Dutchman’s ship approach from upstage center. It owes something to Harry Kupfer’s Bayreuth Holländer. The dress is ambiguous twentieth-century.

Daland and the society of the village are good capitalists (Daland reads the Financial Times), while the Dutchman and his crew are outcast radicals who dress like Goths circa 1991 in long leather trenchcoats with red bits. Senta longs to escape the strictures of bourgeois life (also the rapey drunken sailors), where she is nothing more than a commodity to her wealth-seeking father. The portrait she fixates on depicts not the Dutchman but a quartet of revolutionaries–Marx, Engels, Che, and one I couldn’t identify. Ha, that’s what kind of red those sails are. The world of the Dutchman is dark, lit by bits of yellow and red light, the bourgeois world is bright (though the switches between the two were awkwardly executed). Erik seems to represent a middle ground between the two worlds, as indicated by his brown leather jacket. I think. Maybe you see why this concept was a little unclear.

Mielitz’s most controversial gesture (judging by standing line gossip) is staging Senta’s death not as the usual jump into the sea but rather as a Brünnhilde-style immolation. This departure from the world of sea and water is unfortunate, but the redemption by fire thing is apt, no? The production takes Senta very seriously, and this is a more dramatic way of going out.

Peter Schneider conducted with the kind of energy and excitement that makes some reference to sea foam necessary. There wasn’t a lot of nuance but it was competent, effective, and that’s not bad. The brass overpowered the strings at times, particularly at the start of the overture, and the timing at the end of the development didn’t come off quite right, but in general the orchestra sounded good. The cast was respectable if not electrifying. Albert Dohmen was a passable Dutchman, certainly more imposing than Juha Uusitalo at the Met last April. He is loud and declaims effectively, but the sound is harsh, dull and lacks resonance, as well as genuine stage presence or a unique take on the character. Adrianne Pieczonka’s clear, feminine soprano (more a big lyric sound than a dramatic) is a good fit for Senta, and her accuracy and musicality are always appreciated. She acts well enough.

This was my second time hearing Met Siegfried-to-be Stephen Gould, and the second time as Erik. Fortunately he impressed me much more this time than he did at the Met last April. He’s got a big, somewhat unwieldy Heldentenor (with a dull spot around the top of his range), but the tone is genuinely heroic and he did his best to sing the music with finesse and Textdeutlichkeit. And he was a considerably more engaging actor than I remembered. He is also singing Siegfried in Vienna’s Ring this April, and now I am looking forward to hearing him in a bigger role.

Supporting characters were the usual Staatsoper crowd, including Walter Fink as an unfocused and underpowered Daland and Norbert Ernst as an ardent, somewhat pushed Steuermann. The male chorus really sold their music, sounding hearty to an almost absurd HMS Pinafore chest-thumping degree. I did wonder about the male choral division; perhaps due to the set design the Dutchman’s chorus sounded wimpy in comparison to Daland’s.

Short ovation at the end, loudest for Pieczonka and Gould, lukewarm for Dohmen. Not amazing, but a step up from the Met’s effort last spring.

Four performances remain, February 15, 18, 22, and 25.

Bows–you can almost make out Senta’s portraits at the top of the first photo:

Performance photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper, bows photos my own.

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  1. All the technical issues you are mentioning have already been present on the opening night, so no surprises there. The same goes for any direction of singers. It was a bad staging then as it is now.

  2. Hmmm. I appreciated that there was real evidence of thought about the piece, though, even if it didn't come together well. I think I prefer park and bark in an interesting setting than a totally boring one…

  3. I saw this last night. Firstly, all technical problems sind weg. I know it's rare for the Staatsoper to be so conscientious, but I only noticed some minor creaking of machinery in an early set change. Apart from that, nothing. It's quite obvious from the staging where you would have experienced them, and I can imagine it was frustrating. I'm really glad they sorted this out so competently.

    You observe performances so perceptively – I have nothing to add!

    However, I can't agree with you about evidence of thought. The Marxist angle was hugely problematic, and not something I'd even class as an honourable failure. If we were to propose that Daland is in thrall to Mammon and (therefore) a good capitalist, and judge this proposition on the basis of the libretto, it would an unambiguous post hoc misreading (also, we forget too often that a fundamental principle of Marxism prior to the Frankfurt School's revisionism was to make everyone as affluent as Daland aspires to be!). All that isn't to say that applying a Marxist critique to this character – or indeed the entire opera – is invalid or uninteresting. But for it to rely on the libretto and a copy of the FT isn't enough, and Senta as commodity completely failed to convince. Likewise for the Communist portraits, which seemed little more than a gimmick when juxtaposed against spinning which put me in mind not of the worker as a dehumanized 'appendage of the machine', but something rather more like the cheerful collective labour of the emancipated masses (and not even a flicker of irony here).

    I do think that artworks interpreted through a Marxist lens can make for powerful insights. The problem is that the ideology demands a totalizing concept, and knowing when to accept and when to resist this requires a sensitivity that was completely lacking here.

    Maybe directors are out of practice also. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain there seems to have been a reluctance to produce (thoughtful) work that might be considered dogmatic or dated; the cursed legacy of the socialist realist aesthetic I suppose. I am aware that one of Marx's many blind spots is social anthropology, which poses major problems, and that we'd really have to grapple with that to find out if there is indeed a rich interpretive continuum which spans the crude extreme of Socialist Realism and its obscurist inverse. You'd know better than I if there have been recent attempts.

    In my work recently I've been coming across Walter Felsenstein a lot, though sadly I can't really justify writing about him. But this production put me in mind of the Holländer he commissioned for the Komische Oper, which was filmed in 1964. I saw this about four years ago and need to watch it again (especially after last night). Carnegy argues about to what extent Herz's work is overtly Marxist, but I would classify this film as an unequivocal Marxist take on the work, albeit a non-dogmatic one. I believe it also has a place in operatic lore as the first film of a Wagner opera. [Yes, just checked my Carnegy & that is the case. Also just discovered that Joy Calico has written something interesting about it.]

  4. Step away from the theory for a second. I think you're trying to be waaaay too specific. I mean, I don't see why it has to be a totalizing concept. Totalizing concepts back productions into awkward corners and make Act 3s awkward experiences. I agree that this one was confused, and was more scattered allusion than insight, but productions that are non-stop diehard concept all evening are damn exhausting. I read some of the reviews of this production from the prima and think it might have been clearer then. Apparently the blocking really emphasized the hierarchies, with the sailors treated badly by the capitalist machine and Senta objectified, etc. That stuff disappears in revivals. That's the problem with doing this kind of production at the Staatsoper, which I think is worth a post in itself, which I would like to write soon.

    I think Mielitz owes something Kupfer's Fliegende Holländer as well, and not just in the design. The stifled bourgeois seem similar, at least.

  5. Kupfer of course I know of, but need to get the DVD as I've only read about it (yes, I know that's shameful). But from what I know about it I think he owes a lot to Herz as well.

    I do take your point about new productions and their revivals. However, a quick fix of surface stuff like class consciousness wouldn’t really have mattered in a production that is so evasive about its fundamentals, so I will defend myself as far as the implications of Marxist theory and their relevance to this production are concerned.

    Firstly, I didn't say that a production which takes Marxist rather than capitalist consciousness as its social scenery should be dominated by concept, and indeed was arguing against such a dogmatic approach. I was saying that Marxism, like capitalism, is an immanent ideology, but one that is largely clueless to social anthropology (given capitalist hegemony or Marx's theoretical shortcomings, depending on who you read). Regardless of why, it's a consequence that its (unrefined) principles swiftly become totalizing when put into practice – whether that's on the operatic stage or at a collective farm. Failing to resist this produces either a crude or obscurist conceptual totality, and I'm as wary of this as you. Chéreau’s 1976 Ring isn’t Socialist Realism of course, but that’s what I mean by crude; obscurist I think is clear enough.

    I think we are somewhat in agreement; I'm very much interested in how to maintain aesthetic integrity while still allowing the ideology to add something to the drama. Much East German cinema manages this and we recognise that as important art with something meaningful to say.

    I think Mielitz in this production and many of her contemporaries influenced by Marxist thought want to have their cake and eat it – they refuse to totalize, but won't engage dialectically. And I appreciate it's a big ask, because the cop-out is in response to one of the greatest theoretical problems in the history of ideology.

    It's just dismaying that absence of engagement is covered up with tropes from both extremes. The anxiety not to get sucked into either the crude or obscurist approach – while failing to explore a third way – leads to the worst symbolic elements of both being appropriated with no underlying thought to explain why.

    I wouldn’t say I’m overthinking this, though I appreciate this is dense stuff for a blog comment, and there are weaknesses to what I’m arguing. But reflecting on the production my objections are even more strongly felt than on Monday. Whether intentional or not (and I don’t believe it was), the ideology in this production comes across as nothing more than cheap gimmickry. And I *loathe* McMarxism for the mockery it makes of Marxist thought as well as the audience’s intelligence.