Monday, August 27, 2012

Wagner: Der Fliegende Holländer – 1985 Bayreuth (Part 1: I Love You for Senta-mental Reasons)

Der Fliegende Holländer is fairly early Wagner. He is still using traditional operatic forms: Recitative and Aria, Duet, etc., and the duet of the Dutchman and Daland has a distinct Verdian flavor to it.  Maybe this is why I find DFH to be the most approachable of Wagner’s operas; it has musical landmarks and punctuation that make it easier than some of his later dramas to follow. I remember learning about the overture in general music class way back in Jr. High; about how the overture tells the story and introduces the main music themes that reappear throughout the opera, making the whole opera seem familiar even on first or second hearing.

Harry Kupfer, who directed this Bayreuth production, is probably the first to tell the story through Senta’s eyes—as hallucinations; but it’s a jumping off point for many productions that followed. Only Senta sees and hears the Dutchman; when others are around, he lurks in the background in his ship. The production moves smoothly from Senta’s hallucinations to real life and back again; but even the real life scenes seem to be tainted by her psychosis. 

The sets are semi-realistic and representational, and scene changes are seamless. The sets are quite elaborate. They split, fold and move: the back wall breaks apart as it is pulled up into the flies, and the side walls flatten to the stage.  Daland’s ship looks very shiply. The bow of the Dutchman’s ship is “carved” to look as if it is cradled in two cupped hands. In Acts 1 and 3, the Dutchman’s ship opens to show a fiery interior; but when he appears in Act 2, his ship looks ashen, as if it might crumble when touched. The exterior scene for Act 3 represents the village, with flats containing many doors and windows.  

Senta imagines her father's meeting with the Dutchman.

Senta’s real life looks pretty bleak. Her father Daland is focused on material wealth and is possibly physically abusive, Mary is mean and unpleasant, and Erik is kind of pushy and annoying. Senta needs attention and love, but everyone seems either to be afraid of her or hostile towards her because of her behavior. One can understand why she retreated into her Dutchman fantasy. Senta's appearance separates her from the rest, too. She is blonde, and dressed in white, while everyone else is darker and dressed mostly in black.

During the overture, the painting of the Dutchman falls off the wall. Senta picks up the painting and hangs onto it throughout the opera.  She is onstage most if not all of the opera, seen in long shots, eerily lit and watching the action from above. Her presence is probably better perceived in the theater where you would be able to see her all the time. The only time Senta releases the painting is as she pledges fidelity to the Dutchman in Act 2; her joy and her release of tension is palpable. As soon as he disappears, she lunges for the painting and holds it in a death grip. It seems as if that painting is her only connection to (her version of) reality.

Senta freaks out the women by singing
the ballad of the Flying Dutchman.

Read more about Psycho-Senta and this gripping production in my next post.


  1. I feel the same way about DFH with regard to the approachability - I think it was the first Wagner opera I listened to all the way through in one go.

  2. It's probably the best gateway "drug". I have to build up to Parsifal from the Met this fall. :-)


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