One of the better known mid to late 19th century Catalan painters was Pere Borrell de Caso, a specialist in trompe-l'œil, who gained fame for his work Escaping criticism. There is a striking parallel between this painting and Philipp Stölzl's principal idea for his mis-en-scène for this Berlin-Basel-Barcelona co-production of Der fliegende Holländer being performed at the Liceu this month.

<i>Der fliegende Holländer</i> © Antoni Bofill
Der fliegende Holländer
© Antoni Bofill

Daland, the Dutchman and their respective crews animate the large framed scene depicted in the former’s library (an allusion to cinema, understandable given Stölzl’s successful background as a film director) and it provides a narrative medium to play out the action as “dream world” imaginings by Stölzl’s mentally disturbed Senta. Within this frame, curtain up equals dream world, curtain down, the harsh reality. It is a convincing aesthetic idea and though removed from the original dramaturgical concept set out by Wagner in his manual Bemurkugen zur Aufführung der Oper: Der fliegende Holländer (Remarks on the Performance of the Opera The Flying Dutchman), written while exiled in Zurich, it works well in this production.

The plot does, however, suffer some changes that leave those members of the audience already familiar with the original storyline surprised to some extent. For example, the Spinning Chorus morphs into 35 busy housemaids, or the joyous homecoming festivities of Daland’s crew in the third act changes into a drunken wedding party with the nightmarish, murderous slow motion attack carried out by the Dutchman’s crew and Senta herself. Senta (both the real Senta and her alter ego) is portrayed as a book-clutching obsessive, the image of the Dutchman the focus of her life. She is treated as a chattel by her opportunistic father who forces her into marriage to a much older man, driving her to eventual murder and suicide.

Albert Dohmen (The Dutchman) © Antoni Bofill
Albert Dohmen (The Dutchman)
© Antoni Bofill

In Act 3, the romantic idea of the Dutchman’s redemption through true love is reinterpreted with a different outcome. Senta’s death here is not used as the pretext for the Dutchman’s release from his pact with the devil, rather as a sad “real world” finality – a scene of grisly wrist-slitting instead of the angel-like death fall from a cliff. Senta dies and the Dutchman simply ceases to exist, as the whole fantasy of the Dutchman and his absolution was a figment of her fevered imagination. This is a contemporary take on a familiar narrative of desperation and suicide with the idea perhaps that the 21st century audience can relate to the story more. However, Wagner’s musical drama explains the redemption of the Dutchman through a musical motif at the end of the work. Clearly the scene on stage does not support this, leaving visual and musical narrative in stark contrast.

Oksana Lyniv directed the performance solidly, though not spectacularly. Given that it was her debut performance of a Wagner opera, a certain caution in her execution could perhaps be expected. Some minor errors in the orchestra’s performance were noticeable, particularly in woodwind and brass, with a few late entries and misplaced notes.

Elena Popovskaya (Senta) © Antoni Bofill
Elena Popovskaya (Senta)
© Antoni Bofill

Egils Silins provided a vocally unrefined Dutchman. The demands of the mis-en-scène meant at one point (the love duet in Act 3) the bass-baritone had to try to project his voice ten metres back from the edge of the stage over the orchestra, with Senta at the front of the stage. Clearly this arrangement did not help from the point of vocal balance, with Senta surpassing the Dutchman’s efforts in volume.

Elena Popovskaya’s Senta, though generally capable, revealed a certain strain in the higher registers leading the audience to feel she was suffering at times. Korean bass Attila Jun sang the part of Daland and, true to form, played the part with little dramatic interpretation but with an acceptable vocal performance. Daniel Kirch’s vocally weak Erik did not convince as the jilted fiancé. The choruses sang competently given the extensive choreographies they had to perform in this production with the women’s chorus being weaker than the men.

Whilst not one of the great productions of this opera, it was well received by the audience and the contemporary interpretation of the work was coherent, the only incongruences being the obvious differences in the text being sung and the action occurring on stage which, in the name of poetic licence, stretched narrative plausibility.

***11