Would you ever apply the adjectives funny, slapstick and colourful to a production of Der fliegende Holländer? You would if you attend a performance at the Komische Oper Berlin under the stage direction of Herbert Fritsch and conducted by Dirk Kaftan.

Der fliegende Holländer
© Monika Rittershaus

An oversize, dark-red ship with a sail in the style of a child’s toy fills the centre-stage. It is surrounded by high, shiny bright green walls denoting the Norwegian fjord cliffs sung about by Wagner’s heroes. The ship is manoeuvred either by Daland’s or the Dutchman’s crews and takes us through the tempestuous waters and emotional eddies of the music. This set, also designed by Fritsch, is dramatically lit by Carsten Sander and changes colours along with the changes in the mood of the music – yellow horizons are followed by magenta and pink panoramas. Bettina Helmi contributes costumes that go from stylised sailor suits for the men and powderpuff bows and aprons for the women in Daland’s house to beyond vintage ramshackle looks for the Dutchman’s crew.

Günter Papendell (Dutchman)
© Monika Rittershaus

“I wanted to bring Wagner into the nursery,” is Fritsch’s outspoken intention. And he succeeds in revealing the core of the drama by making it vivid through convincing characterisations. At all times, the mood is one of an over-the-top, cheerful and playful theatrical spectacle for small children. The characters’ body language is one of exaggerated mimicry and grimaces with, for example, the musical storm of the overture mirrored in the sailors’ ballet-like movements rollicking back and forth on the stage.

Add to this a cast, which clearly enjoyed the director’s approach and carried out his concept with commitment. In the title role, baritone Günter Papendell might have benefited from a more ample lower range, but his characterisation of Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean suited the part. His outfit contributed to the persona of the cursed captain: an androgynous aura enhanced by orange dreadlocks, white face and Baroque shabby chic.

Caspar Singh (Steersman) and chorus
© Monika Rittershaus

Tijl Faveyts was made up to be a very smart and young Daland. He was vocally a tad too light for an experienced sea captain, but his impersonation of someone who would sell their grandmother – or in this case daughter, Senta – for the right price fit the profile. Brenden Gunnell as Erik was a real asset to the performance. His tenor had a metal core that he was able to mould in order to bring his real emotional anguish across at the thought of losing Senta. Caspar Singh was convincing in his acting interpretation of the Steersman, but his bright tenor suffered from intonation insecurities.

A Holländer performance relies heavily on the casting of Senta. Daniela Köhler was a good choice. Her top notes were safely and powerfully delivered on the one hand, while the lower register did not cause her any problems on the other. She was the radiant centre of the evening in a frilly orange gown, never letting us forget that she lived by her own rules, in this case, falling in love with a life-size portrait of the mythological Dutchman by Charlie Casanova. Karolina Gumos’ Mary was vocally and dramatically pale in comparison to the otherwise strong cast.

Günter Papendell (Dutchman), Daniela Köhler (Senta) and Jens Larsen (Daland)
© Monika Rittershaus

A special shout out to the chorus and extras of the Komische Oper and the Vocalconsort Berlin: they really threw themselves – literally rolling around the floor at times – into their respective roles while seeming to have a lot of fun doing so. Any pathos was exorcised in favour of varieté-style exuberance and Chaplinesque character sketches. The ghostly crew of the Holländer delighted with individual acting vignettes by a hodge-podge of grotesque types. 

The orchestra tried to follow Kaftan's fast baton throughout, sometimes better, sometimes worse. From the very first downbeat, Kaftan did not let up, neither in tempo nor volume. The singers were mostly placed downstage, so had no problems in projecting into the hall. A little less volume and a bit more differentiated orchestral expression would not have hurt.

This may not have been a definitive interpretation Holländer, but it definitely has its merits and is a valid interpretation.