Wagner – Der Fliegende Holländer / De Nederlandse Opera 2010 (2)

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When Daland’s crew first encounter the Dutchman and his sailors, the latter – after the light in the back has turned a strange yellow – come through those doors. In Act II, as Senta sings her ballad, it’s as if the music invokes whatever is on the other side of the doors. Members of the Dutchman’s crew appears and vanish on the other side of the glass, and eventually reappear again, trailing blood. When the Dutchman arrives, he and Senta initially see one another through the doors. She wants out, and he wants in. The boundary is intensified during the revelry that begins Act III. Here, the partiers are all at the rear of the stage, and there is an additional metal screen between them and the Dutchman’s crew, who are seated in the front. As they call to the ghostly crew it’s fairly clear that they are doing something rather dangerous: attempting to penetrate the boundary between the living and the dead.

And by the end of Act III, the boundary has vanished. The additional metal screen is raised when the Dutchman sees Senta and Erik and turns to set sail again. In the final section all we see is the white space of the stage, and at the rear a picture of the sea and the sky. Senta has literally reached the space inside her painting – she’s in relief against the backdrop when, at the end of the opera, she dies not by throwing herself into the sea, but rather when Erik (Marco Jentzsch) shoots her with his hunting rifle, after he has just shot the Dutchman.

I had to watch that section over again to see if I could get a sense of what Erik’s motivation for doing this is. On the one hand, this is the sort of opera where sometimes people do things simply because they have to and there is no choice. (One gets that sense with Senta’s ballad. The music invokes the other world, in a sense, but Senta’s not doing this on her own – the story has already begun, with Daland’s encounter at sea and his promise to the Dutchman that he can marry his daughter.)

On the other, shooting someone you love usually takes a little while to work up to, even in an opera. Senta and the Dutchman have made the doors disappear – perhaps Erik realizes that death is the only way to bring them back. He’s the landsman after all. Nothing to do with the sea, nothing to do with all those scary elements: there’s a sense in which he’s the perfect character to say: no, this is too destructive to be allowed to continue. (And it’s worth while noting that there’s a line in the women’s spinning chorus in Act II about how Erik might very well shoot the Dutchman’s picture off the wall in jealousy.)

The way Jentzsch plays this is that Erik is sincere, a little frightened, the simple guy who thinks Senta is great but wishes she could just be a little bit more . . .normal. But he’s a little self-centered, too. The wording of the libretto, about how the thrill he felt when they clasped hands constitutes a binding vow — he hasn’t quite realized that he’s not the right guy. But he’s realized this by the end, as the Dutchman turns to leave – and so, perhaps surprising even himself, he shoots him. When Senta rushes to the Dutchman’s side and proclaims that she’s the one who will save him, she seems to know what is coming, and turns toward Erik as he shoots again. Afterward, before he leaves through a door that is not outward toward the sea, Erik has this shaken, ‘what on earth just happened?’ look on his face. (The chorus is offstage in this version – you hear them, but they’re not ‘there.’)

So, Senta doesn’t die by literally throwing herself into the sea as the libretto says. She doesn’t end up one with the elements. The fact that she and the Dutchman are both killed by another human being suggests that this is, ultimately, a story about people and their motivations. The world itself isn’t magic. The sea doesn’t ‘mean’ anything on its own – it takes human beings and their problems to create all the associations we have with it. Maybe this makes the opera’s story both smaller and bigger than Wagner intended? Either way, I think I like this version of it.

I also liked Catherine Naglestad’s Senta, of which more later.

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