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A haunted Holländer

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
04/24/2010 -  & April 28*, May 2, 8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 2010
Richard Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer
Evgeny Nikitin (The Dutchman), Julie Makerov (Senta), Mats Almgren (Daland), Robert Künzli (Erik), Adam Luther (The Steersman), Barbara Dever (Mary)
The Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Sandra Horst (Chorus Master), The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Johannes Debus*/Derek Bate (Conductor)
Christopher Alden (Director), Allen Moyer (Set and Costume Designer), Anne Militello (Lighting Designer)

The COC’s expressionist production of Der fliegende Holländer made a stunning impact when previously performed (in 1996 and 2000) in the 3200-seat former home of the company. Its effect is magnified in the 2100-seat Four Seasons Centre.

The action takes place in a giant tilted wooden box. Its shape and materials help intensify the sound. Changes of locale are indicated mainly by lighting. A sail serves to indicate Daland’s ship, but we never see the Dutchman’s ghost ship. Instead, there are indications of a hard-to-define sense of creeping dread that overtakes the stage action. One example: we are aware of people lurking among the box’s underpinnings.

Director Christopher Alden has moved the action forward in time. Costumes are in the fashion of the 1920s. The Dutchman’s portrait is in the style of German expressionism, and the village women are styled like figures in a Ludwig Kirchner painting. At key moments the separate women’s and men’s choruses move in oppressive unison. Hinted at, but never made totally explicit, is the furtive menace of Nazism in 1920s Germany.

When the ghost crew finally answer back to the sailors of Daland’s ship during the extended scene starting with Steuermann! Laß die Wacht, an offstage chorus is amplified in such a way that the sound comes from nowhere and everywhere all at once. The effect is that of a group dementia overtaking the society portrayed on stage.

There is, however, one problem with the set arising from the fact that it was originally designed to fit the wider stage of the COC’s former performance venue. Important stage action frequently takes place at the extreme edges of the box and thus a part of the audience misses out. It’s a pity that the set couldn’t be narrowed a couple of meters, which would also have made it even more effectively claustrophobic.

The cast is uniformly strong vocally. The sheer attractiveness of Evgeny Nikitin’s voice helps emphasize the dramatic point that the Dutchman, too, is a haunted victim of the nameless menace.

Julie Makerov is a fine Senta, perhaps signalling her entry into more dramatic roles. She varies the dynamics nicely, deftly accompanied by conductor and orchestra.

Mats Almgren’s huge, baleful voice rings out as the opportunistic Daland (a direct descendant of the role he last performed with the COC, the jailor Rocco in Fidelio).

Robert Künzli is a bit of a chameleon tenor. In a role like Mime, his voice takes on the requisite character tone, while for Erik he adopts an appropriate leading man sound. Another innovation in this staging is that Senta dies when Erik shoots her with the huntsman’s rifle he always carries. Wagner’s stage direction is for her to sacrifice herself by leaping into the sea. The shooting has extra shock value, yet it does not undermine her self-sacrifice.

Adam Luther gives us another solid comprimario performance in the role of the Steersman. Barbara Dever is a vocally strong Mary, described usually as Senta’s nurse, but in this production taking more the role of Senta’s mother (we see the bridal procession).

This is Johannes Debus’s first production as Music Director of the COC. (His single previous engagement, when he conducted War and Peace, turned out to be his rampagingly successful tryout.) It is also his first time conducting Der Fliegende Holländer, although he has coached it previously. It is as energetic as it ought to be and orchestra/singer balances, always a fraught issue in the Wagner repertory, are fine. He will be conducting two productions next season - Aïda and Die Zauberflöte - we look forward to those.

After many year’s absence, this and other COC productions will be broadcast at a later date on the CBC’s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera. It will be interesting to simply listen to it without the intensely dramatic staging of this production.

Michael Johnson



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