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Monday, June 15, 2015

DVD Review: Call in the Swiss Navy

Opernhaus Zürich presents Der Fliegende Holländer.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Heart of darkness: Bryn Terfel (center) is the Dutchman in Opernhaus Zürich's
Der Fliegende Holländer. Photo © 2013 Opernhaus Zürich/DG/UMG.
With the 1843 premiere of Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) Richard Wagner created the first of ten operas that constitute the canon of his work. He also created a serious problem for stage directors, as the romance between a ghostly ship's captain and an obsessive young woman ends with the latter hurling herself off a nearby cliff and the reunited couple "ascending to Heaven" as the opera's final bars crash home.

This 2013 production is directed by company general manager Andreas Hornoki. It was filmed t the Opernhaus Zürich on July 3 of that year and released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Deutsche Grammophon. Mr. Hornoki attempts to solve the problem of Senta's cliff dive by almost entirely eliminating the work's nautical setting. There are no ships here, and no ghostly sailors: just the everyday business of a large shipping conglomerate run by Daland (Matti Salminen.) Senta (Anja Kampe) is his wayward daughter who doesn't want a career as a file clerk. The sailors and spinning maidens are clerks too, 19th century bourgeoise more concerned with numbers than anything else.

The sets reposition the whole opera in Daland's main office, with the only indication of the outside world a rapidly chittering old-fashioned stock ticker and a painting over the main desk that comes alive with ocean waves. Shore-to-ship addresses are sung into old-fashioned telephones. At the opera's climax, a map or Africa descends, catches fire and reveals the Dutchman's hidden cargo, a spear-carrying tribal-tattooed African gentleman. (No, he does nt sing any lines but several shipping clerks are killed with bow and arrow.)

Bryn Terfel's Dutchman reminds one of Joseph Conrad's Kurtz. He appears in a feather-plumed stovepipe hat, a bearish fur coat and tribal tattoos. (Clearly he's spent too much time upriver.) In this interpretation, he's very worldly indeed, armed with trinkets for for Daland, a meager offering with which to buy Senta's hand in marriage. The implication is that this Dutchman is an old slave-trader, and will probably treat his new wife as another commodity.

The Welshman's bass is in good form here. He still has a powerful sound at forte that never bellows or shouts, bringing experience and depth to the famous "Die frist ist um." He is better in the duet with Ms. Kampe, singing each line with the thought and care of a lieder singer. The velvety lower register emerges in the Act II love duet, and the whole performance comes to a stormy but never strenuous climax.

Anja Kampe takes on the difficult role of Senta with a fierce attitude and a soprano that improves with volume and power. She never quite transits from pathos to sympathy, even in her two lengthy duets with the huntsman Erik. Her death is particularly objectionable, as she grabs Erik's hunting rifle and shoots herself as the final bars play in the orchestra. Conductor Alain Altinoglu opts for the original 1843 "hard" ending, finishing the opera with bare minor chords rather than Wagner's later, "redemptive" ending.

Matti Salminen was 67 when he filmed this but doesn't sound it. Indeed, he brings decades of stage experience to the role of Daland, generating thrills when the Finnish bass sings with Mr. Terfel. Tenor Marco Jentzch is a capable Erik, skirting on this side of paranoia. He is the warning against Senta's fate and indirectly the cause of her death too. Another tenor, Fabio Trümpy sings with a pleasing tone in the small but crucial role of the Steersman. The orchestra and chorus are strong under the leadership of Mr.  Altinoglu and choral director Jürg Hämmerli. In fact, all that's missing here is the ocean.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.