Showing posts with label The Flying Dutchman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Flying Dutchman. Show all posts

Friday, April 26, 2013

Boston tackles Wagner's Flying, er, Scotsman?




Tonight Boston Lyric Opera opens a new production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman. Except that it isn't the opera as we know it: instead, it's an early version - the critical edition of 1841 - set in Scotland. The production is directed by Michael Cavenagh and stars Allison Oakes as Senta, Alfred Walker as the Dutchman, Gregory Frank as Donald [?? - sic] and Chad Shelton as Georg [EH? Ed. - yes, he is Georg, not Erik...] It is the US premiere of this version.

The British conductor David Angus, music director of BLO, is at the helm and I asked him a few questions about this distinctly unusual project for the Wagner bicentenary...
 
JD: David, please tell us something about the differences between this version of The Flying Dutchman and the one we usually hear? Are they obvious or subtle? Does it present any challenges that are significantly different?

DA: The most obvious difference to the audience is the location - Scotland - and the names of the characters.  While this may seem superficial, the music actually contains many references to Scotland, with the typical bagpipe sounds of drones and little grace notes that underpin most of the chorus music, and even form the melody lines. Apparently there are even direct references to real Scottish folk songs, although I have not yet managed to trace these.  The ultimate authority on Scottish Folksong, Marjory Kennedy-Fraser makes this claim.  


The point of all this is to understand that he really did write it with Scotland in mind, and so the shift to Norway is not casual and irrelevant.

The musical changes are slight in the modifications for the first performance.  He transposed down the main aria for Senta which is central to the whole piece, at the request of the soprano.  It is not easy to sing, even at the usual pitch, and up a tone, in A minor, is really tough.  However, it then makes a better contrast with the chorus that precedes it, in A major, so we are sticking to his original higher pitch.  The orchestration is hardly altered for the 1843 version, but he later made much bigger changes, in particular adding a sentimental "redemption" ending to both the overture and the final scene.  This introduced the harp, at these two points only.  The harpist sits there the rest of the evening doing nothing!  This Tristan style interruption blocks the energy of the ending in both cases and holds things up for no reason.  It has no place in the piece as he first conceived it, and we are not performing it.

For me the biggest differences are that the standard version, as produced in 1895 by Felix Weingartner, contains every added direction and modification that anybody (not just Wagner) had thought to apply to every performance in the first 50 years, and, on top of that, there has grown a tradition of further modifications, to tempo in particular.  When you see the clean original score, it contains so little in the way of directions that one hardly recognises it.  To take just one example; at the height of the development section in the overture, Senta's theme appears no fewer than four times, with just a few bars between each.  There is not a single marking to identify this.  In the later version somebody, possibly Wagner, wrote Un poco ritenuto.  What does that mean to you?  The tradition, which seems to have become so ingrained that I could not find a single recording that didn't do it (not even Roger Norrington or Bruno Weill on their "authentic" performances), is to slam on the brakes and reduce the speed as little as 1/3 of the main tempo!  Hardly un poco ritenuto!  You build up the momentum, stop in your tracks for a few bars, and then set off again at tempo for a few bars, only to screech to a stop again a few bars later - and they do this 4 times in a row.  Everybody does it!  Why?  I just don't understand.  One might argue that Wagner is quoted as saying that each musical idea has its own natural tempo, but the very same theme occurs immediately afterwards in the coda at an even higher speed, without anybody every questioning it.  We perform it without losing momentum at all, and it works much better, maintaining the forward thrust to the coda.

JD: In what ways does Wagner reflect the intended Scottish setting in the music? Did he keep any of those elements in the final, Norway-set version? 

DA: He kept them all, and didn't make any reference to Norway except in the names - Donald became Daland, Georg became Erik, and Holystrand (where they shelter) became Sandvike.  There were other minor changes to the vocal lines, but nothing of any significance.

JD: How did the Scottish version come to light? What kind of editorial work had to be done to it to make it performable? What attracted you to the idea of staging it on in Boston?

My New York manager mentioned that he had a client who had performed this version in Australia many years ago, and it had been very successful.  At that time it had been uncovered by the conductor during his research, and he had produced orchestral materials himself.  I contacted him and was persuaded to follow it up, only to find that Schott had just produced a critical edition of this very version which had yet to be performed in the US.  You can imagine that, as I was already interested in it, the idea that we could actually have a US premiere of a major work by Wagner was an extremely attractive bonus.  This year there are so many Wagner performances that anything to help us stand out is very valuable.


JD: The story goes that he changed the setting to Norway after a fearsome experience at sea when his ship was forced to shelter in the fjords from a North Sea storm, but do you think there is any other reason for his decision to change the setting?

DA: There are various theories, but he had already had that experience on his journey to London and then Paris, before he wrote this piece, so it was already in his mind when he composed it; he still set it in Scotland.  I believe the reason he later changed it was that he had begun to construct the "lone creative giant" myth about himself - one of the original "spin-doctors" - and decided to make the piece more autobiographical.  Maybe he also wanted to distance himself from his sources - both the Heine original Scottish story and even his musical influences such as Marschner's Der Vampyr (set in Scotland, in which a pale man is redeemed by the death of an innocent girl!).  Wagner's original outline for the opera, set in Scotland, which he had sold to the Paris Opera when they didn't want him to compose the whole opera, had just been set by another composer, and I am sure he didn't want to be associated with that.

To sum up, Wagner wrote a strong early Romantic opera, following directly in the line of Weber (with whose music he had a great deal of direct contact when growing up in Leipzig) but which he and his followers then diluted by tinkering with it.  It has ended up as neither the Musikdrama (i.e. grand symphonic work, through-composed, and woven together with leitmotivs) that it later aspired to be, nor the much more athletic and punchy work that is was originally.  I believe strongly that the original version, shorn of all the "traditions" and modifications, is much stronger.

I have been in contact with David Breckbill, the US authority on performance tradition in Wagner, and he wrote the following which makes a very clear case:

“To perform the Holländer as though it were a later work is to expose the younger Wagner’s inexperience.  Paradoxically, in order to deserve equivalent status with its partners in the Wagner canon, Der fliegende Holländer requires performers whose temperament, spontaneity, and technique can bring out the fresh, vigorous qualities that set this opera apart from the later “music dramas”, instead of assuming that a uniform performance style based on the later works will bring the Holländer closer to them.”
(David Breckbill, Cambridge Opera Handbook)

JD: Not about Wagner, but we've all been following the Boston Marathon bomb developments and have been thinking of you over there. How is morale in the company and how is everyone feeling? 

DA: Morale is now good, because the show is going very well and we are all excited to be doing our first big Wagner here.  There was a general feeling that nobody was going to let lunatics like that ruin our lives.  The bombs were awful, and caused chaos in Boston, as you will have heard.  We lost many important rehearsals, but everyone has done everything they could to catch up and we are now back on track.  We were all very shocked at the time, but I also regret that this admittedly horrifying event resulted in a worldwide media frenzy that will encourage every terrorist organisation - showing how simple it is to shut down a major US city twice in a week.  If it had happened in Syria or Iraq, it would hardly have been mentioned!

Photos by Eric Antoniou

Friday, May 04, 2012

The Flying Duchen

Let's get to the heart of this right away. How can we "do" Romanticism in an age of cynical post-modern irony? I don't pretend to have the answer, but the question is a hefty one. And Jonathan Kent's new production of The Flying Dutchman at ENO asks it full on. That is not the least reason it is so effective. Whether or not the director intended to do so, he's sunk his teeth into one of the big artistic conundrums of today. It deserves to be brought into the open.


We see Senta first as a child in pink pyjamas, watching the waves through a giant skylight; she craves her father's affection, but he is unable to deliver any and pushes off to sea, leaving her with a book of fairy tales for company. The Dutchman manifests as her imagining, her interior living, if you like, of such a fairy tale - as children do, as we all do if only we remember, casting her father one of its characters, and the Steersman too - who sings his quiet song with rapt nostalgia and falls asleep on the floor, where little Senta covers him tenderly with her duvet. The Dutchman and his ship arrive in a terrific coup-de-theatre, he in full Mr Darcy getup, while the ship wouldn't disgrace Errol Flynn's in The Sea Hawk. And Daland's eagerness to marry the stranger off to his daughter without noticing that said stranger is one of the Undead is all too convincing, because Daland is a stranger to love and values nothing but money.

Senta, meanwhile, grows up to be Orla Boylan - except that she doesn't. She's still living that fairy tale, her emotional world twisted into an alternative reality by the lack of emotional substance around her. She works in a factory making ships in bottles - the set (designed by Paul Brown) is magnificent, with a vast window and plenty of wood suggesting past glories for this Norwegian one-ghost suburb. Her refuge is the image of the Dutchman: her own longing, her own clinging to belief in the redemptive power of love and compassion. There's none of that in her real world. Even Erik (sung by Stuart Skelton, who is an absolute knockout of a Heldentenor) is no answer. He's a security guard at the factory and there's a hint of violence, born of frustration, in his treatment of her; this big guy doesn't know his own strength. And the other girls pick on her: she's the mildly deranged fat lump in the pink dress (Primark?) who pooh-poohs their sluttishness.

And then the boys come back from sea, they have a piss-up in the factory and they try to gang-rape her. In the song to the Steersman they're egging him on, as their leader, to do the deed. Remember that nostalgic first song he had in act 1? Everything now is inside-out and upside-down. The ghost ship chorus - beamed in by amplification from somewhere offstage (a bit of a pity soundwise) comes to Senta's aid and scares everyone off, but the event pushes her over the edge and, exhausted and already dead within, she breaks a beer bottle and stabs herself with it. She is destroyed by the society in which she lives. Jonathan Kent shows us the death of a soul.

The performances match the power of the staging. The chorus, for a start, is possibly the best I've ever heard at ENO. Orla Boylan's Senta gives everything in her Ballade; there may be issues about pacing and stamina, as in the scene with Erik she began to sound strained and tired, but she summoned reserves of strength for the final scene that made her Senta seem cousin not so much to Isolde (as Wagner later saw her, rewriting the ending post-Tristan - we got the early version at ENO) but Brunnhilde, facing a test of fire instead of water.

Clive Bayley is a magnificent and all too believable Daland; James Creswell as the Dutchman is strong and even-toned, though could maybe use more variety in vocal colour to put across the emotional content, rather than relying too heavily on diction - it's good to hear all the words, but it sometimes distorted the ends of his phrases. Tenor Robert Murray made much of the Steersman aria, which in the grand scheme of the staging acquired extra dramatic significance. But Skelton just about steals the show, despite his character having too little to do. He tweeted the other day that he was off to New York to sing in Die Walkure at very short notice (jumping in for Kaufmann). Lucky Met.

Still, there's big stuff happening at home, and it is happening most of all down the pit. This is Ed Gardner's first Wagner. And from the moment the lights go off and the orchestra plunges into the deep end, we plunge with them. They grab us by the throat and don't let us go for the full 135 minutes (no interval, thanks). The intensity is fabulous, both at the opera's wildest moments and its stillest; the pacing is excellent, passionate, convincing. This seemed the case after that glorious Rosenkavalier a few months back, but now there's no doubt about it: ENO is busy growing a great conductor.

So, I was wondering how we do romanticism in an anti-romantic age. And then I went to see a preview screening of the 3D film of Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, which is being released into cinemas worldwide on 15 May starring Richard Winsor (and very good it is). And there's the prelude. The child prince in bed, in his pyjamas. His mother comes in; he reaches out to her, she backs away. He has a fuzzy swan by way of comforter. He has a nightmare vision of the real swan. And the action commences. Remind you of anything?

Now, I'm not suggesting for one moment that this Dutchman production borrows anything from anybody, but the general atmosphere and logic of the concept is quite prevalent enough for different directors to arrive at the same scenario from contrasting positions. The Flying Dutchman story has plenty in common with that of Swan Lake. The lead character's fantasy world becomes his/her reality, encroaches on actual reality, then destroys him/her.

And today, we can't take it on its own terms, the way Wagner or Tchaikovsky intended; we have to interpret and explain it, because it seems nobody will buy into it otherwise. If a twisted mind through lack of a parent's affection is becoming the dramatic cliche of today (taking over from child abuse, which has been used ad nauseam), there may be a good reason for it.

It's one of those odd things about Romanticism, though, that it involved plenty of cynicism. It was the composers, not the writers, whose senses of humour and awareness of irony sometimes fell flat. The Flying Dutchman is based on a story by Heinrich Heine, whose bite is much fiercer than his eloquent bark. In Heine, the ending of the tale - the suicide of "Mrs Flying Dutchman" - is cynical as hell: the only way a woman can be faithful to this man unto death, he suggests, is if she dies right away. Wagner makes a virtue out of this, but that's not how Heine wrote it. Just as Schumann, setting Heine's songs, avoids the razor edge of this poet's fearsome blade and refuses to laugh or sneer with him, so Wagner goes a stage further and creates his own philosophy out of it - perfumed, feverish and egotistical it may be, but it's alive and well and blazes out of the music. Heine, one suspects, would have been livid.

And Romanticism? Its music still has the strongest appeal to audiences for classical music - not all, of course, but a distinct majority. You want "popular classics"? You get Tchaikovsky. So it is not dead. Twisted, certainly, but defunct, not at all. Most of us still, somewhere, believe in the redemptive power of love - don't we? - and the current craze for vampire movies suggests that maybe we even want to believe, at some level, in the supernatural. But the destruction of a soul through lack of love, and that lack of love, and tenderness, and compassion, and kindness, and idealism, as a comment on our society, is taking hold. Maybe we should take notice.