Tuesday 8 April 2008

Der fliegende Holländer, 8 April 2008, Vienna State Opera

Vienna State Opera

Daland – Ain Auger
Senta – Eva Johansson
Erik – Klaus Florian Vogt
Mary – Daniela Denschlag
Steuermann – Gergely Németi
Der Holländer – Terje Stensvold

Orchestra, Chorus, and Additional Chorus of the Vienna State Opera
Thomas Long (chorus-master)
Donald Runnicles (conductor)

Christine Mielitz (director)
Stefan Mayer (designs)

At last, some real musical drama at the Vienna State Opera! After my experiences with a musically-flawed Tristan and a superannuated production of Ariadne auf Naxos, I had begun to wonder whether the house had become more of a tourist trap than a living opera house. This Flying Dutchman was not flawless but should certainly be accounted an artistic success.

I had praised the orchestra in Tristan; its contribution had certainly been superior to any other aspect of the performance. Here, however, I was reminded of the difference when it clearly wants to play. Second-rate (or worse) conductors are simply not tolerated by these players; whatever one thinks of such practice, that is how it is. Donald Runnicles, thankfully, could not be taken for a second-rater. Wagner’s score, quite a miracle when one considers how it followed immediately upon Rienzi, was taken by the scruff of its neck, by a musician who appeared to commit everything to two-and-a-quarter hours of unbroken musical drama. The deplorable practice of splitting up the work once again into three separate acts was, thankfully, not followed. (Covent Garden had done so on the last occasion it mounted the Dutchman, but that had been almost the least of its problems, given the presence of the lamentable Simone Young in the pit. I also had the misfortune to re-encounter her in Berlin, although Harry Kupfer’s superb production almost salvaged that occasion.) Although I might quibble at certain choices, for instance the very slow speed Runnicles adopted for Senta’s Ballad (and – at least he was consistent – its presentiment in the Overture), these were evidently choices thought through, as opposed to some of the thoughtlessness and ineptitude in Ariadne, especially its Prologue. The tricky balance between individual numbers – all there, despite the through-composed nature of the score – and the tonal architecture was in safe and exciting hands. As for the orchestra itself, every section played as if its lives depended upon it. The Vienna strings can never sound truly anonymous, but I now appreciated just how much had been missing on previous evenings. The depth of tone and supremely judged vibrato were something at which to wonder, had one not been so gripped by the unfolding of the score. Sitting immediately above the horns did not make for an ideal orchestral blend, but there was ample compensation in full appreciation of their consummate contribution, as was the case with the rest of the brass, which added immeasurably to both salty tang and supernatural terror.

The cast was not musically perfect, but it was dramatically engaged. Klaus Florian Vogt perhaps came closest to combining both virtues. Not only did he make something of Erik’s role, he convinced me to sympathise, which I think must be a first. Considering that Erik’s music is often in itself relatively banal – dramatically contrasting with the more highly-charged and forward-looking music of Senta and the Dutchman – this was quite an achievement for the sweetly-toned, often plangent tenor. There were hints of something more heroic to the voice, but wisely they were not over-emphasised, however tempting this might have been in purely musical terms. Gergely Németi was an unusually ingratiating Daland, which gave an interesting slant upon the character. His attention to words and to musical line was noteworthy, although the musical portrayal was perhaps too beautiful, ultimately lacking the overt venality that the character demands. Both Eva Johansson and Terje Stensvold were very convincing dramatically, although they could equally both be a little too free and loose with intonation. Stensvold did not always project as strongly as he might, although this was far more prevalent earlier on.

The choral singing was superb: perhaps a little rough around the edges, but better dramatically truthful than clinical. It was also clear that the chorus had been directed, not fussily but with enough skill to make its members credible and indeed interesting on stage. Indeed, this was a hallmark of the production in general. It did not draw attention unduly to itself, but gave a relatively straightforward – which is not to say unimaginative – account of the drama. The wraith-like denizens of the Dutchman’s ship convinced in supernatural terms, when one might have feared a dated science-fiction treatment. It appeared that due notice had been taken of the music, which sadly cannot be taken for granted. The final redemption – prophetically in immolation – of Senta and the Dutchman was fittingly climactic but not sensational, which is just how it should be