After a muddled Tristan, a playfully experimental Lohengrin and an anarchic Ring, the production of The Flying Dutchman that was put on at Bayreuth this year felt almost traditional. Not that Jan Philipp Gloger was at all trammelled by fidelity to Wagner’s original scene directions or costumes: the sailors wore natty modern grey suits, while their spinning sweethearts were factory workers clad in scrubs (the spinning wheels were cleverly reimagined as alternative spinning entities, partially assembled electronic fans which were being shipped out). Nonetheless, the updating was only skin-deep: the characters still behaved and related to each other pretty much as is laid out in the libretto. As such, events unfolded in a way that was consonant with the emotional language of Wagner’s score, which allowed for an easier immersion in the story than in other productions shown at the Festival.

Ricarda Merbeth (Senta), Christa Mayer (Mary) and Chorus © Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath
Ricarda Merbeth (Senta), Christa Mayer (Mary) and Chorus
© Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath

With the curtain remaining down for the entire Overture, it was a chance to really focus on the instrumental synopsis of the drama to come. The Festival Orchestra under Axel Kober created a marvellous tone poem, with the surging opening music (associated with the Dutchman) maximally contrasted to the redemption theme (associated with Senta), so that it felt like the exemplification of a primordial opposition between dynamism vs stillness. Kober provided a steady hand at the tiller throughout, marred only by a few brief moments of uncoordination between the orchestra and the chorus.

The backdrop for Act I was a gigantic electronic circuit of glowing wires, chips and digital counters, the whole thing flashing epileptically at intervals, with only a small rowing boat to suggest the original maritime location. At the end of the Act, the sailors surged downstage towing a large sail; this was pulled aside to reveal a two-sided box containing the factory-working female chorus members frozen in poses until they were released by the music. Most of the Acts II and III took place in this box-like structure (Bayreuth has always used the version without breaks between the acts since the Dutchman was first performed there in 1901).

Ricarda Merbeth (Senta) and Samuel Youn (Dutchman) © Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath
Ricarda Merbeth (Senta) and Samuel Youn (Dutchman)
© Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath
Senta was the most distinctively characterised figure in this production: her self-made non-representational statue of the Dutchman over which she obsessed suggested a slightly disturbed personality. This Senta was not in the least shaken by doubts after Erik’s attempts to change her mind; even the Dutchman’s rejection was serenely ignored. Her suicidal/redemptive leap into the ocean, always a challenge to stage directors, was replaced here by Senta stabbing herself, which caused the identical wound to break out bloodily on the Dutchman, before they climbed onto the tower of boxes for a final embrace. The curtains closed on them in this pose, only to re-open a few seconds later as the redemption theme was heard one last time. The stage set-up had changed: the factory had restarted, now making kitsch replica statues of the two lovers in their final pose. This gentle dig at commodification added humour without trivialising the original.

The chorus has a large amount of stage time in Holländer, and these singers were excellent throughout. The spinning scene was rendered even more charming thanks to the kittenish poses of the women, while the big composite scene at start of Act III (the exchanges between the Norwegian sailors and their sweethearts, and subsequently the singing battle with the spectral Dutch crew) was probably the most impressive part of this performance. The movements of the chorus were highly coordinated and stylised throughout, almost in the manner of musical theatre.

Kwangchul Youn (Daland) and Samuel Youn (Dutchman) © Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath
Kwangchul Youn (Daland) and Samuel Youn (Dutchman)
© Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath

The standard of singing from the principals was generally extremely good, although there were no truly outstanding performances as there have been in other productions at the festival. Kwangchul Youn was a bluff Daland who captured his character’s opportunistic ways well, while his namesake Samuel Youn was a sensitive Dutchman, who brought dignity and deep feeling to his great Act I monologue, although he was perhaps lacking the sheer vocal presence of some of the great exponents of the role. Tomislav Mužek’s cultured singing as Erik was very pleasant to listen to, and not just because of the rarity of his vocal Fach (a lyric tenor) in Wagnerian opera. Ricarda Merbeth was more problematic as Senta: she had a tendency to stray sharp on the big high notes, but was better pitch-wise when not at full throttle. Benjamin Bruns made the most of his role as Steersman, demonstrating both sound vocal chops and good comedic gifts, and Christa Mayer was fine as Mary.

Ultimately, much though I enjoyed the production as it unfolded, it may not linger in the memory as long as some of the other more controversial fare at the Festival.

****1