Last summer’s Bayreuth Festival opened with a gripping new production of Der fliegende Holländer. Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Bayreuth directorial debut is a study in alienation, revenge and redemption. The staging was notable for two other milestones, as Oksana Lyniv became the first woman to conduct at Richard Wagner’s legendary Festspielhaus since its opening in 1876, and the sensational Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian made her house debut with a standout performance as the opera’s heroine, Senta. The exceptional cast also included John Lundgren (The Dutchman), Georg Zeppenfeld (Daland), Eric Cutler (Erik) and Marina Prudenskaya (Mary). Filmed live by Deutsche Grammophon, Der fliegende Holländer is available as a DVD and Blu-ray set now.
Tcherniakov’s production probes the psychology of co-dependency within a closed community, projecting the drama of Wagner’s romantic opera into a familiar modern world of stark architecture, fractured relationships and urban violence. The acclaimed Russian director and stage designer, described by Opera News as “an artist whose work is on the edge of the cutting edge”, relocates the opera’s action from its traditional seaboard setting to a soulless contemporary town. The Dutchman was born here and, as a child, watched his mother take her own life. While the overture plays, his recurring dream of childhood trauma and humiliation is silently acted out onstage.
Doomed to an eternity of wandering unless he can be redeemed by a woman’s undying loyalty, the Dutchman returns home after a long absence and offers to marry Senta, daughter of Daland, the man whose heartless affair provoked his mother’s suicide. Tcherniakov’s vision of the tragic tensions between the principal characters leads inexorably to the town’s destruction and the Dutchman’s death. His staging moved its first-night audience to cheer and stamp on the wooden floor of the Festspielhaus.
Georg Zeppenfeld was praised by the Financial Times as “the kind of Daland who makes you lean forward and hang on to every word”, Eric Cutler by Seen and Heard International for making his set pieces sound “effortless, lyrical and resoundingly passionate”, and John Lundgren by ConcertoNet as “an enigmatic, glacial and disquieting Dutchman”. Asmik Grigorian’s impassioned singing and spellbinding acting, meanwhile, drew a standing ovation from the Bayreuth audience. Calling her interpretation “one of the finest opera performances I have ever seen,” Seen and Heard International’s critic concluded that the soprano “does not just sing Senta, she becomes her!”
Ukrainian conductor Oksana Lyniv, formerly chief conductor of Odessa National Opera and the first female chief conductor of Graz Opera, brings her own brand of high-octane energy to Wagner’s score. Her interpretation was hailed by the New York Times for its “sharp attention to detail and pacing” and by the Frankfurter Rundschau for its “tautness and animation”.
“Der fliegende Holländer is one of the most difficult Wagner operas, though it’s also the shortest,” comments Lyniv. “The tension is continual, and there are so many changes, so many things happening at once, that for two and a half hours you need to call on every ounce of experience and talent and patience and passion, all at the same time.”
Both Lyniv and Tcherniakov have made their voices heard in recent weeks, speaking out against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The director is one of many international artists to have signed an open letter calling for an immediate end to the “unconscionable war”, while also asking for fair treatment of “subjects of Russia and Belarus who are unaffiliated to Putin’s regime”. Lyniv, whose parents and other family members are still in Ukraine, has urged Russian artists to condemn the invasion and written her own open letter to Vladimir Putin. “Performing is giving me the strength to live,” she says. “And to fight, for peace and for democracy. Music has become my weapon. And it’s a powerful one.”