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Review: Terfel shines in Zurich's odd 'Dutchman'

Monday - 12/10/2012, 12:10pm  ET

In this undated photo provided by the Opernhaus Zurich Bryn Terfel in the role of the Hollaender (Dutchman), right, and Anja Kampe as Senta, left, perform on stage during a dress rehearsal for Richard Wagner's opera "Der fliegende Hollaender" (The Flying Dutchman) at the opera in Zurich, Switzerland. (AP Photo/Opernhaus Zurich/T+T Fotografie/Toni Suter + Tanja Dorendorf)

MIKE SILVERMAN
Associated Press

ZURICH, Switzerland (AP) -- There's scarcely a ship or a sailor to be seen in the wildly revisionist, weirdly anti-colonialist new production of Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman" at the Zurich Opera. But, fortunately, there is Bryn Terfel.

The Welsh bass-baritone was in splendid voice and commanded the stage with mesmerizing, hulking presence as the Dutch mariner condemned to sail the seas until he finds a woman faithful unto death. It may be a slight exaggeration to say Terfel single-handedly redeemed the spectacle that premiered Sunday night -- but only slight.

One night earlier the company presented Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera" in a musically vibrant but similarly befuddling production, this one a revival of a staging by David Pountney first seen two seasons ago.

But "Dutchman" was the big news, because it's the first production directed by Andreas Homoki since he became general manager of the opera house earlier this year. With the license that comes from the European fashion of radically reinterpreting standard works, Homoki apparently decided to turn Wagner's romantic ghost story into a cautionary tale about the evils of bourgeois greed and imperialism.

Daland the sea captain becomes head of a shipping company, and his sailors are desk-bound clerks, keeping in touch by telephone on the progress of a returning ship. A map of Africa on the wall marks its ports of call, and Daland keeps a fez-wearing African manservant. Daland's daughter, Senta, and the other women are no longer seamstresses but office workers who sit at typewriters instead of spinning-wheels. And the only time we see a ship among Wolfgang Gussmann's sets is when a painting of a turbulent ocean churns to life and the Dutchman's ship with red sails emerges from the waves.

None of this sheds any particular new light on Wagner's opera, but at least it sticks to the broad outlines of the plot. Things turn really perverse in the final scene, when Daland's crew tries to rouse the ghostly sailors aboard the Dutchman's ship. Suddenly, the African servant morphs into a spear-carrying savage, and the map of Africa goes up in flames. Senta proves her loyalty not by jumping into the sea to join the Dutchman but by shooting herself with a hunting rifle.

Terfel, wearing a fur coat with long brown hair hanging over the collar and streaks of dark makeup that accentuate his piercing eyes, manages to keep his dignity amid all this and creates a searing portrayal of a man possessed. Reprising a role that sounds almost easy for him after his recent exertions as Wotan, Terfel musters stentorian power for the climaxes but sings many passages with a quiet, yearning tenderness.

Anja Kampe as Senta matches him well, singing with warm, penetrating tone, except for some strident high notes. Veteran bass Matti Salminen revels in the role of Daland, even if his voice has lost some of its richness. Conductor Alain Altinoglu whips up considerable excitement in the pit, though there were a few opening night coordination problems with the excellent chorus.

It should be noted that although Zurich opera audiences have come to expect that liberties will be taken, there were more than a few boos when Homoki and his team came out for curtain calls.

For "Ballo," Pountney takes off from the fact that the real King Gustavo III of Sweden was a playwright and theater buff. So Verdi's opera becomes a play staged by the tenor, abetted by his page, Oscar, and a woman who starts off dressed as his nurse but then acts the part of the fortune teller Ulrica.

Anyone who saw the recent David Alden production at the Metropolitan Opera will recognize some similarities: Oscar wears wings; Ulrica takes frequent swigs of liquor, and the opening scene ends with a jaunty chorus line.

In the finale, Pountney gives us not one but three Gustavos -- the king who is assassinated during the masked ball, the king who has directed the show, and the life-size puppet king he carries in and lays atop the prompter's box. It's all a bit bewildering.

Tenor Ramon Vargas brings an urgent lyricism to the role of Gustavo, while soprano Tatjana Serjan displays a striking range of colors as his beloved Amelia. Baritone Alexey Markov is impressive as her husband, Renato, though his sound is more Slavic than Italianate. Mezzo-soprano Yvonne Naef is a vivid Ulrica, and soprano Sen Guo a spirited Oscar.

Perhaps the best thing about the performance is the presence in the pit of octogenarian Nello Santi, who leads a rich, finely detailed performance. Santi provides a rare link to a bygone golden era: He made his Met debut 50 years ago conducting "Ballo" with a cast that starred Carlo Bergonzi, Robert Merrill and Leonie Rysanek.


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