30 October 2006

Dutch Treat

My favorite production as a production at the Bayreuth festival was oddly enough the opera I was least excited about seeing, Der Fliegende Hollander. I really like it, but I wouldn't travel halfway around the world to see it on its own, and I would have been thrilled to hear Tannhauser or Lohengrin in its place (not Meistersinger -- I wobble a lot on that one). But this production (directed by Claus Guth) was sharp, imaginative, and suggestive. The setting was an Escher-like living room, divided in half by a huge staircase sweeping up the left side of the stage, with the upper portion of the room the mirror image of the bottom. The Dutchman (John Tomlinson) and Daland (Jaakko Ryhanen) were also mirror images of each other. The spinning maidens were a choreographed chorus of almost-identical platinum blondes with bright red lipstick and the same dark dresses; they looked like shopgirls from a 1930s film. I can't even describe how effective they were on stage, almost bringing down the house as they sang beautifully and moved in unison. They looked both normal and slightly menacing and off-putting, as the somewhat awkward brunette Senta (Adrienne Dugger) moved spacily among them. You could see that she never fit in; no wonder she was drawn to the romantic image of the doomed wanderer. The sailor chorus had the same effect of looking both conventional and grotesque; some of them were in painted half-masks so that at first glance you couldn't quite tell where the grotesquerie was coming from, until you realized the unnaturally puffed-out roundness of the upper half of their faces was due to the mask. They looked like marionettes, with their herky-jerky movements. The chorus is not a huge feature of most of the operas in the festival, but they did themselves proud when they did appear.

The resemblance between the Dutchman and Senta's father was used to suggest a psychosexual disturbance as the cause of Senta's obsession. Afterwards I heard some of the audience object to this, sometimes from sheer boredom at the inevitability of such an interpretation these days, and I respect the groans at yet another molestation motivation being slapped on a work, but I thought it was handled delicately enough so that it was suggestive rather than reductive: you could read it as a case of molestation if you were so inclined (I wasn't, particularly), or you could just see it as an indication of Senta's troubled relationship with the most important male in her life up to then, her father (who, as a sea captain, would also have been something of a wanderer), being projected onto another wandering seaman. A contemporary audience probably needs such an understandable motivation, instead of simply being presented with these odd events. Perhaps our post-Freudian insistence on theories of motivation has made us less subtle and realistic than the Romantics: instead of labelling and reducing the inner life into an acceptable because categorized form, they presented the rich and strange phenomena of life, open to poetic interpretation.

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