Friday, May 7, 2010

Frisch, Jungen, greifet an!

Mal ganz ehrlich: I really like Wagner. I wouldn't call myself a Wagnerite, because Wagnerites both know a great deal more than I do, and often exhibit partisanship which alarms (even) me (as Rene Pape has said, they are special people who tend to freak out a lot) but I really do love the dense, glorious music, and the sheer ambition of his Gesamtkunstwerke. Not only do I love the music, but my inner child is breathlessly delighted by the fact that the dense, glorious music is so often employed to evoke settings like this:

Steiles Felsenufer. Das Meer nimmt den größten Teil der Bühne ein; weite Aussicht auf dasselbe. Die Felsen im Vordergrund bilden auf beiden Seiten Schluchten, aus denen die Echos antworten. – Finsteres Wetter; heftiger Sturm; zwischen den Felsen selbst verliert der Wind, den man in offener See die Wogen peitschen sieht, seine Macht; nur von Zeit zu Zeit scheint das Heulen des Sturms hereinzudringen. – Das Schiff Dalands hat soeben dicht am Ufer Anker geworfen; die Mannschaft ist in geräuschvoller Arbeit beschäftigt, die Segel aufzustreichen, Taue auszuwerfen u.s.w. Daland ist ans Land gegangen; er steigt auf einen Felsen und sucht landeinwärts die Gegend zu erkennen.

For gorgeous early-twentieth postcards of Holländer go here. In August Everding's production, set (I believe) in the early twentieth century, the steiles Felsenufer of Act I towers over Daland's travel-weary ship and crew, but the ocean is unfortunately nowhere to be seen (as in the Met's photo, above.) The Holländer's ship, large as a man o' war, appears out of nowhere, sinks its anchor on a blood-red chain, and sinks its landing stairs onto Daland's deck. Impressive (if lacking in obviously infernal accoutrements.) Act II has a bare room full of treadle sewing machines and cloth-covered tables, with Mary shrilly and sententiously supervising productivity. I always pictured the Spinning Chorus much cozier, but ah well. Act III had a celebration on the steps leading down to the pier, with Daland's house mysteriously under the said steps. (Parenthetically, what Norwegian celebration involves dancing, large jack-o-lantern masks and copious quantities of wine? Christmas?) So far, so good (if unremarkable.) But the blocking (or lack thereof) was, I thought, deeply problematic. Wouldn't Daland be somewhat suspicious of a prospective son-in-law who never looks him in the eye? Wouldn't Senta's fixation on the portrait be more effective if there were more general movement and interaction? Surely it is hardly revolutionary to suggest that the drama of Senta and the Holländer standing wie gebannt on opposite sides of the room and staring fixedly at each other would be much more effective if this were not what everyone is doing with everyone else all the time.

The Met orchestra and chorus, bless them all, were on excellent form. The sailors were especially good, rollicking away with precision and energy. And they didn't come out for a bow at the end! I was quite surprised, as it was performed without intermission; I was looking forward to giving a bravi. The excellent orchestra gave of their best: balanced, full sound, with every section playing with energy and attention to detail. Unfortunately, however, Kazushi Ono was conducting as if by a metronome in his head. It was positively stately. I found myself fantasizing that Maestro Levine would magically appear, out of a trapdoor or the ceiling, or striding into the pit like John Wayne into a saloon, and liberate his orchestra to create the Wagner-excitement I know they can. A metamorphosis not unlike this, perhaps. But we were left with a magical orchestra under a metronome... a metronome who occasionally overpowered the singers. If the Seven Seas can't drown the Holländer, neither should the orchestra.

Fritz Wunderlich's Steuermann has spoiled my ears. Russell Thomas trumpeted "Mit Gewitter und Sturm" dutifully, until the end, as fading into sleep softened his tone and phrasing. Did no one tell him he could sing like that all the way through? If not, as the essay prompts used to say, why not? Wendy White, whom I like a lot, sang a dedicated Mary, but was confined to a bath chair, which led to another slew of strange blocking choices. (It might have functioned more effectively as a symbol of her powerlessness to control Senta if there had been more customary interaction between the characters.) Hans-Peter König sang a strong, sonorous Daland; perhaps because of the similarity between the two characters, I found myself thinking he'd make an exceptionally good Rocco. He did have a distracting habit of sawing the air with one hand as an all-purpose gesture, but vocally he was great, appropriately greedy, as well as tender but clueless towards Senta. He appeared genuinely brokenhearted at the end, poor man; I couldn't help but pity him.

Glowing praise of Juha Uusitalo generally, and his Dutchman specifically, were balanced by quite negative buzz for his performance in this run, both in the Times and on the Rush Tickets lines. He was neither as good as I hoped nor as bad as I feared. The top of his range sounded sadly forced, but his low notes were rich and powerful. The torment of his fury and despair, the tragically compelling alternation between defiance and supplication of eternal powers, never quite ignited for me... but this may have been partially attributable to Ono's tempi. Also, as previously mentioned, I don't think falling on the floor (or onto your metal staircase, if that's what you're working with) is effective shorthand for emotional turmoil.

Stephen Gould turned in a sympathetic performance as Erik: he exhibited a full, rich tone, powerfully projected, with moments of surprising tenderness and sensitivity. The overall impression was one of an Erik much less hapless than usual, truly devoted to Senta, but not in the least a pushover. Silly Senta, fixated on der bleiche Mann. Deborah Voigt, as Senta, seemed to be giving several good performances at once. On the one hand, her characterization (and she gets major credit from me for acting so well within a difficult production!) leaned very much toward the dreamy innocence of a Gilda, humming to herself in front of the portrait, smiling and gesturing as if conducting a conversation with her imaginary beau, and to top off the convincing portrait of an adolescent, she was impatiently offended with the world for simply not understanding how her passion and its object lay at the center of it. Her voice, on the other hand, had me more than once cursing the fact that illness forced her to drop out of the Tristan I saw in December of '08. Senta surely could and perhaps should be balanced precariously on the edge of sanity somewhere between Gilda and Isolde... but whether due to rough transitions between the upper and lower registers of her voice, or the lack of effective Personenregie, or the lack of subtlety from the conductor, I never felt that Voigt quite found that balance. All in all, it was an evening with many good points, but also many "if only"s.

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