Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Faithful Wife Is Hard to Find

Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer
Metropolitan Opera
May 4, 2017

The Flying Dutchman searches for a faithful wife
Photo credit: Met Opera
Late last September, the 2016-2017 season at the Met opened with Wagner adrift on the high northern seas with Mariusz Trelinski’s new production of Tristan und Isolde, and so it seems fitting that we virtually close the season with another, earlier Wagner that also takes us indelibly out to sea for our next to last Met voyage of the season. Staged for the first time in 1843, Der Fliegende Holländer is the composer’s fourth operatic foray and it is, thankfully, shorter than the Wagnerian fare we have grown accustomed to over the last few years.

At roughly a continuous two and a half hours, without intermission, it is decidedly more compact than his later classics, but that doesn’t mean that the narrative is fast paced. Already at this point in his career it took Wagner ages to get from point A to point B. Scenes unfold so slowly that they demand the utmost extremes of endurance from everybody involved (audience and performers alike). Though perhaps I’m beginning to think that’s precisely the whole point with Wagner: he just harps on and on about stuff without any theatrical sense of pacing or timing. Which is not to say that the whole thing isn’t pleasurable. Gorgeous musical moments abound at every turn, no matter how stalled out the story is and how flat – or should I say, over-intellectualized – the emotions register. With Wagner it’s not about compelling narratives but it’s really all about the musical journey, where massive waves of wonderful sound engulf the audience and transport it away.

The women do their spinning
Photo credit: Met Opera
Having only just revisited Verdi’s Rigoletto (1851), an opera from almost a decade later, in which the musical drama unfolds with an economy and an emotional density that is completely and utterly lacking in Wagner, Der Fliegende Holländer felt like some kind of strange overly heady sprawling exercise. A ten-minute movement in Act II of Rigoletto will not only thrust the dramatic tension forward with a riveting sense of urgency and musical invention, but it will touch on half a dozen human emotions, from anger to love, rage to supplication, tender affection to exasperation, fatherly care and frustration to defeat and desperation. Wagner on the other hand often abandons forward motion in favor of excavating personal moments of introspection, maybe, to put it generously.

So this opera may be shorter than Die Meistersinger and Tannhäuser, but it is by no means any sweeter. Quite the contrary: Der Fliegende Holländer presents one of those questionable archetypal mid-nineteenth-century self-sacrificing women that were in vogue across the literary and operatic genres of the time. Dostoevsky’s novels often feature, at the very least, one such specimen, if not more. Christlike female martyrs were all the rage apparently in the era of male neediness two centuries ago, even if the trend wasn’t limited to the period.

The Flying Dutchman makes landfall
Photo credit: Met Opera
In a nutshell: a wealthy Dutch sailor (the one after whom the opera is named) is cursed to travel the high seas for all of eternity unless he finds a good woman willing to marry him and remain faithful till death do them part. Sailor can set foot ashore only every 7 years to find said “good woman.” Sailor meets another boat where the captain promptly agrees to give him his good daughter in marriage in exchange for some of his riches. It just happens that the lady in question is already kind of obsessed with the story of this very same Dutch sailor (apparently a major blockbuster at the time) and daydreams of proving herself to be the special “good woman” required for his redemption. When father introduces her to the hero himself, she swoons and things seem to be heading toward a happy ending with a cheerful wedding in tow. BUT, the young woman’s old boyfriend pops up all whiny because she does not care for him anymore. Dutch sailor misunderstands the situation and storms off, thinking she is just another slutty unfaithful woman, incapable of keeping her word for more than a minute or two. Our heroine, to prove her eternal love, jumps off a cliff, thus breaking the curse instantly. Curtain, as “good woman” and Dutch sailor ascend united to heaven.

Senta's Choice
Illustration by Robert Neubecker
Much has been made of the choices of this particular opera’s heroine, Senta. And much of the recent debate has focused on her role in the story. She has been reduced to a mere fangirl who languishes under the weight of her idolization of a pin-up of a corpse-like hunk who has been built up by the ballad tradition passed down by popular culture, making her a female Don Quixote of sorts who is drugged on her favorite stories and looks to them to give her banal life some semblance of meaningOr else emphasis has been placed on Senta’s savior complex – her belief in her superwoman abilities to redeem an irredeemable and perhaps unlovable man. We’ve all known the type, and so has the legendary Dan Savage.
Senta goes into a fangirl trance over her pin-up of a hunk
Photo credit: Met Opera
Putting Senta’s masochistic (or heroic, depending how you see it) motives aside, it seems like most of this discussion has neglected some pretty key misogynistic features central to the plot and its dramatic tensions. The whole drama hinges on the fact that the Dutchman cannot find a faithful woman. If there were women capable of loyalty in marriage or Senta did not raise suspicions of infidelity, there would be no opera here. Which is offensive to say the least. I mean, we’re talking about a sailor not able to find a loyal woman.

Maybe Wagner’s personal experience with marriage (or married women) had something to do with this. As one story goes, Wagner was apparently having an affair with Liszt’s daughter, Cosima, who was married at the time to Hans von Bulow, a pianist and conductor of the premieres of both Tristan and Die Meistersinger. She bore Wagner three children (all named after Wagnerian characters) before von Bulow granted her a divorce, at which point he married Cosima and became Lizst’s son-in-law. The composer had a colored past to say the least when it came to questions of fidelity. In this case the male heart is not exactly exempt from guilt.

Senta expresses her convictions to the headmistress
Photo credit: Met Opera
The central question of feminine fidelity, however, is put forth by Senta herself in her big second act ballad. It is perhaps the most famous set piece in the whole opera, which undeniably features some of the most beautiful music of the evening:

But he can be saved, this captain so pale,
If woman’s heart in her mission not fail!
But when will he find this woman
So rare, this woman so rare?
(Act II, Scene 1, Senta’s Ballad)

By her own admission, or at least that of the author of the ballad which she has learned by heart and sings in a trance at the opening of the act while the other women, her boring conformist peers, are hard at work, women are unfaithful (so as not to say “sluts”). A woman who will faithfully love “this captain so pale” is a creature “so rare, so rare.”

Senta assures the Dutchman she knows what she's getting into
Photo credit: Met Opera
Now, either the Flying Dutchman is an unlovable monster (though there are no explicit indications in the libretto of that), or else this opera casts more doubts on the nature of womanhood than any opera before the Duca ironically sang La donna è mobile (which said more about his own fickle tendencies than those of any of his fawning fan girls).

Pray for the man at sea,
That his woman be true to him!
(Act II, Scene 1, Senta’s Ballad)

According to Senta’s ballad, women are not naturally prone to loyalty. Is this not, rather, the theme of the opera?

Will you, indeed, give yourself to me forever?
Shall I in truth, a stranger, thus be blessed?
Say, shall I find the time of sorrow ended –
In your true love my long-expected rest?
(Act II, Scene 3, Dutchman’s proposal)

In the world of Wagner’s opera, a good wife is indeed hard to find. Senta goes so far as to prove her hardcore inner-fangirl status by throwing herself off the cliff – all on behalf of a man whom she has only (hardly) just met. They die a heroic death (together?). By proving her “faithfulness unto death,” the Dutchman finally gets the repose he has long sought after. His ship dissolves into mist; their souls rise up to the heavens – forever united though with no real common bond of love to speak of. The composer didn’t bother to develop any kind of relationship between them.

A last encounter on the fatal staircase
Photo credit: Met Opera
From our Family Circle seats we could not see the climactic suicide, because it occurred too far upstage for our sight lines, nor could we make much sense out of the sudden glow of heavenly light that rather awkwardly suffused a rear corner of the stage. From the top of the house it was only partially visible. Most of the people who filed out of their seats with us were perplexed by the ending. What did it all mean? Did they die together? Did she liberate him? Was her sacrifice for naught? Did redemption come to anyone after all this sound and fury? The emotionally payoff didn’t amount to much.

The faithfulness of woman is at the center of the story. Not just the self-sacrificing female savior, but one who will be eternally true to her man, as if this were some impossible feat. Is that the offensive part? The question hangs unanswered, heavy in the air. This production did little to weigh in on the debate.

Il maestro in action
Photo credit: Met Opera
Nevertheless, the Met Orchestra sounded crisp and clean and clear under the direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Once they launched into an inspired performance of the overture, I knew we were in good hands. In fact, I can’t wait to see what kind mark he will make on the company. His conducting was forceful and poetic, muscular and sure-footed. This embodiment of Wagner sounded like it could actually forge boldly into those later Dionysian places his work is so known for – especially in terms of the Met’s recent productions, that have lacked the Dionysian indulgence so characteristic of this composer. A Wagnerian score demands a kind of reckless abandon and energy. It has to be expressive. None of this pussy-footing around that has characterized too much of the current gentile world of the arts in which we seem to be eternally damned to live. Nézet-Séguin seems poised to go there. And that makes me happy.

A sorrowful, masculine presence, only slightly ghostly
Photo credit: Met Opera
The cast was equally stellar on the whole. German baritone Michael Volle as the Dutchman was mysterious and sexy, though only slightly ghostly. He played the bereft sailor as a sorrowful, masculine presence. His instrument has all the power and stamina required to forcefully assert itself over the orchestra and fill the hall, with a manly desperation but also hope and impetuousness that were pretty impressive. In Volle’s hands I think I may consider warming up to Wagner. True, his arias went on and on about the same stuff but he sounded so good that I actually did not mind that much.

Soprano Amber Wagner as Senta was also stellar – perhaps the star turn of the evening. I feel like she stole the show in a number of ways. She brought Senta’s famous ballad in the beginning of Act II to life with emotion and musicality, launching with earnest passion into the excitement of the hunky sailor story. She went into a fangirl trance with a delicacy tainted with lunacy, especially in those forceful attacks that punctuate each of the stanzas of the ballad. It is one of the most famous pieces from the opera for a reason and this Californian soprano was up to the task. In fact, I never would have said she was American. She has one of those Northern European voices that stops you in your tracks no matter how big a wave of sound the orchestra might be producing in the pit. She was another revelation of the evening.

Amber Wagner steals the show
Photo credit: Met Opera
Tenor A. J. Glueckert as the old boyfriend Erik was perhaps the only weak link. He didn’t have the same girth of sound that the leads had. The Wagnerian tenor though is a different kind of beast. There is just so little finesse in the Wagnerian vocal line, whereas there is so much to belt out, so much muscle required of the voice, especially the tenor. If you’re looking for melting emotional moments, you’re in the wrong place. This is decidedly a heady experience. The Wagnerian tenor knows no tears.

In fact, where is the emotional payoff? It seems to be non-existent in the Wagnerian operatic experience. It’s all intellectualism all the time when it’s Wagner night at the Met (even the audience seems to be more on the haughty intellectual side when compared to your average Verdi public). I have to admit that it has been a reluctant turn to the Wagnerian oeuvre but once you actually take the plunge it ends up revealing itself to be pleasurable in its own way (though one should not expect fast paced plots, witty librettos, soul stirring moments or relatable human emotions). These works need to be experienced at least once in the life of an opera lover. More than that is pushing it.

– Lei & Lui

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