Olivier Py’s production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, filmed at the Theater an der Wien in 2015, is quite unusual. Usually opera productions either play the story more or less straight or work with a concept of the director’s that is not obviously contained in the libretto. Py doesn’t really do either of these. What he does is present the narrative as Wagner wrote it but with visuals that act as a sort of commentary on, rather than a literal depiction of, the action being described. One of the things this does is make the viewer realise just how much Wagner is describing! There is much more tell than show.
The basic set up is very black and white with everything happening in a sort of black wooden box. It might be a theatre, it might not. Everybody is dressed, sort of 1950s style, in blacks, greys and whites. There is a dancer (Pavel Strasil) representing Satan. The opening stage set has “ERLÖSUNG” chalked across it. Actually, Satan aside, not much happens visually in Act 1, though there’s a brief appearance by what appears to be “naked Seta” at the end of the act, (I use that term loosely as Py uses the 1841 continuous version) but as Act 2 opens it becomes clearer where Py is going. There are no spinning wheels. The girls are a chorus conducted by Mary. There’s no portrait either. There are projections. then we get the scene with Senta and the Holländer. Now there is a giant skull on stage.
Act 3 starts to get deeper into this. The sailors’ chorus is accompanied by Satan and two other dancers then three skeletons descend from the fly. The lighting goes stroboscopic and technicolour. I think there’s a naked Satan in a mask sort of hovering in mid stage but with the strobes it’s hard to tell. There’s a rather violent confrontation between Georg (not Erik here for some reason) before Senta and the Holländer disappear slowly into a sort of plastic ocean. The word “ERWARTUNG” appears chalked on the back wall.
Although there’s a longish interview with Py in the booklet none of this is really explained. He talks a lot about Wagner’s identification with Senta and I got a very strong sense that this production is really about her not the Holländer. The visual abstraction also, I think, made me listen harder to the music. It really is a wonderfully lyrical score.
And on that note let’s talk about the music. Marc Minkowski is in the pit with his Les musiciens du Louvre; presumably on period instruments but I haven’t been able to verify that. They produce a remarkable sound. There is great clarity, delicacy where needed and full on drama when required. In its way it’s as remarkable as Tafelmusik’s Beethoven Ninth.
It’s backed up by very good singing. Samuel Youn is absolutely solid in the title role and Ingela Brimberg is a very decent Senta though perhaps not with the sweetest of upper registers. Bernard Richter is an exemplary Georg and the rest are all good. The chorus is the Arnold Schoenberg Chor and they are quite excellent. Overall, musically I think I enjoyed this more than any other recording of this piece I have heard.
François Roussillon directed the video and I think he does a good job of capturing a production that is very dark and has some serious lighting effects going on. But be warned; it is very dark and I can’t imagine watching it at lower resolution than Blu-ray. It’s one where I wish there was a 4K version. The sound (both DTS-HD-MA and PCM 2.0) is excellent. Besides the interview with Py, the booklet contains a track listing and synopsis. there are no extras on the disk and subtitle options are English, French, German, Korean and Japanese.
This disk is probably not a good introduction to this work but it is quite provoking and musically very interesting.