The COC’s 2022/23 season opened last night with a revival of David Alden’s production of Wagner’s Der fliegender Holländer with Marilyn Gronsdal directing. It’s been eleven years since this production was last seen and, if memory serves, it created some controversy back then, chiefly on account of the Dutchman’s “zombie” crew. Seeing it again it’s hard to see what the fuss was about. It’s actually a very straightforward production where sailing ships are sailing ships and spinning sheds feature textile workers. The only deviation from the libretto that I noticed was Senta’s death. Here she’s shot by Erik while holding up a picture of the Dutchman.
So what we get is a visually interesting and coherent production but without any real attempt to deal with the problems in the libretto. Tnere’s a heavily raked stage below which the zombie crew make some eerily lit appearances. There are ropes and sails and sailors stumbling across storm tossed decks. The spinning chorus is accompanied by textile factory gestures and the chorus gets very raucous in the Act 3 party. There are also some visual references that are almost like Easter eggs. The Dutchman’s portrait resembles a woodcut by Munsch. Senta’s hairstyle looks like a nod to a Klimt painting and so on. There’s also some very strange hi-vis green bling on the ladies in Act 3 (is that new or did I just not notice it last time?).
But the basic story, holes and all, remains the same. Women are property who have no role but to be “faithful”. The supernatural elements, while not stressed, are still there. And the Dutchman judges Senta to have been “unfaithful” essentially because Erik once gave her a bunch of flowers. I really do understand why directors like Tcherniakov feel the need to find a different way of framing the story. Alden/Grondsal doesn’t attempt that.
Whatever one thinks of the production there is some fabulous music making here. I’m not sure that a much better cast than Johan Reuter in the title role, Franz-Josef Selig as Daland, Chris Ventris as Erik and Marjorie Owens as Senta could be seen anywhere. Myles Mykannen as the Steuermann, and Rosie Aldridge, as Mary, were excellent too. Both Reuter and Selig combine power with a Lieder like precision and sensitivity and Owens has a really beautiful voice well displayed in the famous ballad. This is very high class Wagner singing across the board. The chorus too was in fine voice and Johannes Debus produced a dramatic and sensitive reading of the score extremely well supported by the orchestra.
It’s a good night at the opera. If I’d seen it three years ago I would have heartily recommended it. Looking at the likely future of opera in 2022 I have no hesitation in saying go get a ticket. You may never hear a Wagner performance this good again in Toronto. Der fliegender Holländer plays at the Four Seasons Centre until October 23rd.
Photo credits: Michael Cooper