IMPROVING WAGANER OR HOW TO SCUTTLE A WAGNER OPERA WITH A SHIP IN IT (photographs from various European productions)
I just attended a performance of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, an early work that predates most of the rest of his output, except for Das Liebesverbot (a travesty of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure), the very good Rienzi, and the early youthful effort Die Feen, and I gave the Cincinnati Opera’s first replay of this Wagnerian opera in nearly two decades a polite review.
It was not a pan and it was not a rave. I saluted the orchestra, conductor, chorus and cast, and I politely ignored what I thought was a sorely misconceived production, yet another example of Regietheater in which the hopefully well-intentioned director attempts to “improve ” on Wagner at the risk of making a mess of things.
During the overture – one of the finest in the Wagnerian canon – there was an unrelenting projection that, I suspect, wanted to remind us that this was an opera about the ocean and its fury, among other things. But what I could not avoid watching was a series of scratches and lines and water drops, mostly in black and grey and red, on and on for the entire length of the overture.
Then the curtain rose to reveal a unit set that was meant to morph as needed by the director and designer into Daland’s ship, the Dutchman’s ship, and Senta’s workplace, to name but three of the locations specified by Wagner. Then there was the relocating of the story into what presumably was a mid- 20th century setting. And that’s where the troubles really began to pile up.
Wagner specifies in his very detailed, very specific markings: “… a seashore encircled by cliffs…the sea occupying most of the stage area…bad weather…an impending hurricane…Daland’s ship lowers the anchor near the shore…the sailors are busy trying to trim the sails… using the ropes to secure the vessel… Daland goes ashore…ascends a promontory…surveys the landscape and recognizes it as a familiar one…”
That is what Wagner envisioned and consistently achieved with 19th century theater technology. That is not what we saw on stage in the Cincinnati production, notwithstanding the hard-working chorus and principals.
After intermission we now were in what looked like Daland’s Dry Cleaning Services, where a couple of sewing machines were placed on stage to give us fair warning that there would be no Spinning Chorus. Instead we had the Sheet Chorus, in which the ladies of the chorus dutifully followed the director’s instructions to just fool around with the sheets with no apparent purpose. There was no folding, no repair work, nothing, just a number of identically-dressed sopranos and altos playing with the sheets up and down, up and down… Endlessly…
Unit sets can work wonders when put to use with skill and imagination. The Greeks were using unit sets in their tragedies two millennia ago, and they could still pull off deus ex machina feats. Lope and Cervantes worked with unit sets, Moliere did as well. And in recent times some highly skilled directors and designers have proven that imagination can fill in a great deal of detail within the limitations of a unit set, proving that often in theatre, less is more
But the set in last night’s Dutchman did nothing to propel the story forward or clarify it. A smart friend who goes to the theater all the time asked me at intermission a couple of questions that clearly evidenced that she was loving the music, but had no clue as to the what or where or when or why of what was happening on stage. And that confusion is the result of wrongheaded staging.
Fortunately the principals were savvy pros who knew their way around any stage. The Dutchman, who deserves the bone-chilling entrance he could have had down a staircase prominently situated upstage center, instead made his first appearance through a stage-right door part of the lip of the proscenium, usually used for musicians to enter the stage in a concert. It robbed that moment of badly-needed dramatic punch. The red raincoat that the singer sported was at the nadir of the production’s costume design.
In the final moments of the opera, the excellent soprano performing Senta was instructed to climb a long, two-story-high metal ladder, wearing medium heel shoes and a crinoline skirt, to then perch herself on a window sill, sing her final note, and promptly fall backwards onto a pile of mattresses meant to be out of sight, thus giving the impression that she had fallen from a height to certain death.
But, sad to tell, our last glimpse of her was one of her right foot sticking out in plain sight. What followed then was the return on stage of a mannequin dressed in identical clothing to Senta’s that was strategically surrounded by the chorus. Up above the stage, in silhouette, the ghosts of the Dutchman and Senta approached each other and struck a “The End” pose as the curtain came down, while many in the audience made a bee line for the parking lot.
Among American audiences, some do not welcome modern-dress productions of operas with which they are familiar. I am among those recalcitrant folks. The multimillion Ring at the MET has been widely loathed by both singers who have had to deal with its now-on, now-off hydraulics and the Wagnerites who would happily see a return of the wonderful Otto Schenk production. A recent Tosca at the MET, courtesy of director Luc Bondy was universally booed by audience and critics alike and replaced by a better one, in which the Santa Maria della Valle church in Act I looks like the one Puccini specified, and the very one that many of us have wanted to see again on stage since the days of Franco Zeffirelli.
Composers who were savvy men of the theatre were always very clear as to how they wanted their operas staged. Verdi fought long and hard to have his Traviata set in the mid-century Paris of Dumas, and when he finally was able to control everything from casting to set design to stage direction he stood firm. Puccini was unbending about staging details. Wagner, likewise, became his own regisseur and producer.
It would be unthinkable to modify the orchestration that a composer specifies for his score or to tweak the melody or harmony of the composition. So why then take liberties with something as intrinsic to Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk or Verdi’s or Puccini’s works as the settings of their operas?
When an intelligent director comes along and injects new life into tired old warhorses, it is a cause for celebration, if and when he or she respects the intention of the composer and resists superimposing his or her ego on masterworks that have been alive and well for many years.