François Girard’s widely acclaimed 2013 Parsifal suggested that the Metropolitan Opera might have found the ideal director to reinvigorate its Wagner repertoire, especially after Robert Lepage’s recent Ring cycle turned out to be a costly debacle. But in February, Girard’s spacey new Lohengrin confused its audience, and a dispiriting revival of his bland Der Fliegende Holländer on May 30th once again demonstrated that the frustrating French- Canadian may be a one-shot wonder.
Holländer was the last new production to premiere at the Met before COVID-19 closed opera houses worldwide. Even before it opened, the first fresh staging in over thirty years of Wagner’s early maritime masterpiece about the mythical Flying Dutchman lost Bryn Terfel, its superstar leading man, to an injury. But even the charismatic Welsh bass-baritone might not have been able to jumpstart Girard’s dark, damp Holländer.
Its initial run was cut short after just three performances, so the Met brought Girard back this season to revive his Holländer with an exciting all-new cast led by a much-buzzed-about young maestro making his US debut. Unfortunately, it once again ran aground.
As it turned out, Girard had revised his staging—but only slightly. Its previous staged overture featured a dancer doubling the role of Senta performing Caroline Choa’s overwrought choreography. This time around, the Met’s soprano Elza van den Heever writhed modestly while childish storm projections whirled. Once the opera proper began, we were again subject to the same static, idea-free vision we suffered through three years ago.
For decades, Wagner’s operas have been embraced by innovative directors eager to deep dive into the works’ myths and symbols via increasingly controversial productions. But the Met has usually favored more traditional approaches best seen in decades-old stagings by Otto Schenk. Though his Ring has been replaced due to budgetary limitations, the Met retained his Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Tannhäuser, the latter of which will be revived yet again next season.
Girard’s Holländer may appear to follow the Met model: sailors dressed in Moritz Junge’s solidly 19th-century costumes pull ashore a realistic-looking ship’s bow. While John Macfarlane and Peter Flaherty’s production design grows increasingly spare and abstract, it’s clear from the shallow characterizations and rudimentary blocking that Girard has nothing to say about the Dutchman’s tortured search for redemptive love or Senta’s self-destructive obsession for a man she knows only from his portrait, present here as just a giant eye.
The singers are seemingly left to fend for themselves—a particular disadvantage for van den Heever who is performing her first-ever Senta. Usually an intense and detailed singing actress, the soprano rarely suggests why this woman feels so strongly drawn to a stranger her father brings home that she sacrifices her life for him. Cruelly asked to begin her important ballad far back on a nearly empty stage, she can make little of that revealing scene.
Though her electrifying high notes sear the air, she often sounded hollow and underpowered in the middle and lower ranges. Girard places van den Heever and Tomasz Konieczny in the title role so far apart during their long, fate-changing duet, it is impossible for them to establish any chemistry or connection. Never once do they touch!
Konieczny, who had made an indelible impression as Alberich during the final run of the Lepage Ring, is currently at the forefront of international Wagner singers. The Dutchman’s fierce opening monologue, “Die Frist ist um,” which won a spontaneous ovation on opening night, shows why: his big incisive bass-baritone rages and mourns powerfully. But too often he bites into his music with a fire that ignores Wagner’s more romantic legato writing. Thus, his contributions to the rapturous love duet emerge blunt and unromantic.
Eric Cutler who began his career at the Met nearly 25 years ago in high lyric roles returned to the company after a decade-long absence as Erik, Senta’s cast-off suitor. In his years away from the company, Cutler’s voice has so grown in size that he has been embracing more heroic repertoire including performing his Holländer roles at Wagner’s own Bayreuth Festival. His anguished, ardent Erik strongly emerges as the evening’s biggest success, much as Sergey Skorohkodov’s Erik did three years ago.
Dimitry Belosselskiy ably conveys Daland’s jolly, yet rapacious nature but his roundly ruddy bass often sounds hollow as his music rises. Richard Trey Smagur, too, lacks freedom on top and his strained bluntness is all wrong for the Steersman’s lyrical refrains. Eve Gigliotti’s busy though underpowered Mary manages to make its mark amidst Girard’s strange and silly spinning ropes.
Just twenty-nine, German conductor Thomas Guggeis has been making quite a name for himself in European opera houses, but his first Met outing leaves a decidedly mixed impression. After an impressively stormy overture, Guggeis leads an uneven Holländer with taut sequences alternating with scattered ones where stage-pit coordination becomes chaotic.
The Met chorus, which has been in magnificent form all season, stumbles occasionally as the thrilling choral passages during the final scene lack cohesion. Surely the few remaining performances of Holländer will tighten up musically, but Girard’s seasick production remains a washout that should be jettisoned as soon as possible. Local Wagnerians are surely praying that he won’t be the one to take charge of the Met’s next Ring due to arrive in several seasons.
The next evening, after Met newbie Guggeis struggled, two of classical music’s most celebrated veterans captivated a packed Carnegie Hall. Several months ago Renée Fleming and Evgeni Kissin began collaborating on a slim program of Schubert, Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Duparc. After appearances in Europe, their US tour concluded at Carnegie with the soprano resplendent in two over-the-top gowns but in an increasingly faded voice ravishingly accompanied by her self-effacing bravura pianist.
Despite its gala trappings, the unchallenging concert delivered determinedly serious songs spelled by piano solos in which Kissin shone. The unexpected pair had by Wednesday developed a palpable and affectionate rapport no doubt encouraged by their shared management, IMG artists, which was credited in the program. Once upon a time, a diva’s designer was also cited—remember Rouben Tur-Arutunian for Kathleen Battle—but we weren’t told who turned out Fleming’s lush burgundy number followed after intermission by an explosion of fiery orange sequins, both with very long trains that Kissin carefully avoided treading on. The most spontaneous moment of Wednesday’s very studied concert occurred when Fleming entered in her glamorous pumpkin concoction to wild applause only to then exit apologetically when she realized the first number was Kissin’s alone!
Anyone who thought Fleming’s career was going to wind down after she bade farewell to the Marschallin in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier at the Met was mistaken. She remains busier than ever though extremely careful as the years pass—she’s now sixty-four—about what she sings. Her song choices with Kissin never took her too high or too loud. By the end, she had floated only a couple of her trademark high piano phrases. In many ways, her long-familiar voice remains remarkably true and steady though its richness and size have notably diminished.
Never a penetrating interpreter, she first amiably offered a few earnest Schubert and Liszt songs. The two Rachmaninoff offered more emotional engagement, as did the Duparc—though her French was surprisingly incomprehensible. Closing the program, the sad Duparc pair valedictory, particularly as “Le Manoir de Rosemonde” ended with an extended piano postlude in which the diva ceded attention to her pianist. Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” an unexpected choice for the sole encore, reminded us of the swoony, scoopy Fleming mannerisms that she’d mostly kept in check in recent years.
Though Fleming isn’t scheduled to perform next season at Carnegie Hall, she’s returning to the Met in a revival of The Hours. If Peter Gelb is smart, we might even see her there as Pat Nixon in Nixon in China, a role she triumphed in recently at the Paris Opéra.