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The Met Opera's 'Dutchman' sails into port with a new star
The soprano Anja Kampe during rehearsal for Wagner’s “Der Fliegende Holländer” (“The Flying Dutchman”) at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Feb. 20, 2020. The show, which opens on March 2, the first new Met production of the work in over 30 years. Julieta Cervantes/The New York Times.

by Zachary Woolfe



NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- At a rehearsal one recent afternoon, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra was roaring out the final scene of Wagner’s “Der Fliegende Holländer” (“The Flying Dutchman”), which opens Monday, the first new Met production of the work in more than 30 years.

A man’s shadow, projected onto a screen at the back of the stage, stood several stories high behind the action. Watching it, it was hard not to think of another giant looming over this production, even in absentia: the commanding Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, who had been scheduled to return to the Met for the first time in eight years to sing the title role in Wagner’s early, torrid Romantic masterpiece.

Then, late in January, while appearing as the Dutchman in Spain, Terfel fell and fractured his ankle.

“Unfortunately I’ve been around long enough that I’m used to calls like that,” Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, recalled with a rueful chuckle.

Terfel must have some variant of the Dutchman’s curse, which in the opera has condemned the character to roam the oceans forever, allowed to leave his ship only once every seven years to try to break the spell.

“He was supposed to sing in the new production of ‘Tosca’ a couple of years ago,” Gelb said. “Then he arrived to rehearse and couldn’t perform. So he felt terrible that, once again, something beyond his control kept him from being here.”

The Met eventually found, in Evgeny Nikitin, an experienced replacement. He extricated himself from some engagements in Russia with the help of Valery Gergiev, who is conducting the new production and wields considerable clout in their homeland.

Nikitin joins soprano Anja Kampe, who plays Senta, a young woman who has grown obsessed with the Dutchman legend, practically worshipping a portrait of him that hangs in her father’s house. She fantasizes about breaking the curse, and — spoiler alert — eventually sacrifices herself to save his soul. (A man’s redemption through the love of a faithful woman is a favorite Wagnerian theme.)

Kampe has had a sterling career in Europe for two decades, but is only now making her Met debut. The company had offered her roles in the past, she said in an interview after running the score with Gergiev in a basement rehearsal studio, “but I wanted to wait for the right thing.”

If this “Dutchman” — a coproduction with Dutch National Opera, the Abu Dhabi Festival and Opéra de Québec, which premiered it last summer — isn’t the right thing, it’s hard to know what would be. The director, François Girard, has directed only a single opera at the Met, a vivid, sensitive version of Wagner’s “Parsifal” that was introduced here in 2013 and revived in 2018, but was one of the most acclaimed stagings of Gelb’s 14-year tenure.

“‘Parsifal’ is set in a world of unreality and we tried to pull it back to reality,” Girard said, sitting in the theater after rehearsal. “Except for the Dutchman and his ghosts, this is the opposite. We’ve removed it from the ground zero of reality. Which helps the piece. When you play it too realistically, you expose its simplicity or naïveté.”

In other words, the more stylized the action — the more it seems to take place inside Senta’s fevered imagination — the more muted its antiquated gender dynamics. For Girard, the most challengingly misogynistic aspect of the piece is that Daland, Senta’s father, agrees to trade his daughter for some gold the Dutchman is carrying, a troublingly mercenary transaction. In the new production, though, the Dutchman and his sailors have wandered the cosmos, arriving not with gold but with glowing rocks that, for Girard, represent “cosmic power, cosmic knowledge.”

“We elevated the currency, therefore elevating the trade,” he added. “And then that rock — by the end, everyone has one; everyone has been contaminated by the cosmic light.”

The set completes the Met’s iconic golden proscenium with a matching lower lip, giving the staging the impression of taking place within Senta’s painting, or perhaps even within her mind. That recurring, looming shadow of a man is actually created in real time by a dancer backstage wearing a motion-capture suit, a way of representing the Dutchman’s supernatural nature without falling into what Girard called “the skeleton clichés.” (Think the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.)

Girard began his career as a film director (“Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould,” “The Red Violin”), but when he began to work in live performance, he was at first reluctant to incorporate film into his stagings. He’s gradually shrugged off that reticence, and the “Dutchman” overture introduces a heady mixture of painted elements, video and dance that continues throughout the intermissionless performance: “It’s like in a dream,” Kampe said.

Questions remain, and not just about how Nikitin will live up to the expectations of many in the audience who were eagerly anticipating Terfel. While Gergiev has done much Wagner, at the Met and elsewhere, his performances are notoriously uneven: sometimes inspired, sometimes phoned-in.

Last summer, when he conducted Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” for his debut at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, reviews reflected this. Joshua Barone wrote in The New York Times that “his interpretation of the music was unreliably thoughtful, and at times lackadaisical.” (The festival announced another conductor for this year’s revival.)

And the Met’s lead singers are worried — as, to be fair, singers often are — about being heard, given that the staging tends to place them high and upstage. “It’s a pity we are so behind, for the sound,” said Kampe, who has the charming habit of repeating words in triplicate when she wants to make a point. “It’s high up, and back, back, back. It’s all open. In the back we have some fabric and no wood; it goes up, up, up.”

About Girard’s sensible symbolism and visual flair, however, no one takes serious issue. With the hit “Parsifal” under his belt and now a second Wagner opera, with a third to come — “Lohengrin,” currently in development for a future Met season — he is swiftly becoming the company’s go-to director for this challenging but rewarding composer. Not that that was the plan.

“It wasn’t a project,” he said, and quoted himself from a recent roundtable discussion: “I feel I didn’t choose Wagner; Wagner chose me.”

“With ‘Tosca,’ ” he added, “I really like watching it. But if I read the text, I think: Give me a camera, I’ll make a movie. But Wagner is a theatrical space I feel comfortable in.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company










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