Old Man and the Sea

On March 2, Sir Bryn Terfel brings one of his signature roles to the Met for the first time: the cursed title sea captain of Der Fliegende Holländer, doomed to sail for eternity. Canadian director François Girard, who proved himself a Wagner interpreter of the highest order with his profound 2013 staging of Parsifal, now turns his attention to the composer’s first masterpiece, overseeing an evocative production that explores the mystical nature of the opera and the power of images to consume us. Valery Gergiev conducts his first Wagner at the Met in nearly 15 years, and Anja Kampe makes her company debut as the devoted young woman whose love will set the Dutchman free. By Jay Goodwin

In Der Fliegende Holländer, the young Norwegian beauty Senta stares, transfixed, at the portrait of a damned sea captain, captivated by the dark, mysterious image and drawn into its haunted world. With a new production of the opera that turns the Met stage into a massive oil painting, director François Girard hopes to give audiences the same experience.         

Girard sees Der Fliegende Holländer from Senta’s point of view. “It’s the story of a young woman who is so obsessed with a picture that she will eventually be swallowed by it,” he explains. The director, also a celebrated filmmaker, says that making movies “induces picture obsessions constantly,” so he can identify with the young woman’s infatuation.                

Working with John Macfarlane, the most painterly of set designers, Girard has created a rich, sweeping aesthetic of dark yet subtly shaded tableaux—moonlit cloudscapes, crimson sunsets, and a hand-painted, stage filling image of a ghostly eye, which acts as the Dutchman’s portrait and is visible as the audience fills the seats. To drive the point home, the director says, “we are completing the Met’s golden proscenium arch along the bottom side, so that the audience sees a large painting, framed as a painting. When the curtain goes up, we enter into it the same way Senta does.”

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Another key element of the staging is an elaborate recreation of the Dutchman’s fearsome ship, complete with a menacing bowsprit extending some 20 feet from its prow. All of this is much to the delight of Sir Bryn Terfel, the legendary bass-baritone who sings the title role. “I’ve always asked opera houses for a production with a ship and without a raked stage, but I think most of them have misheard me” he jokes. “They always give me a rake and no ship!”                

Terfel has made the Dutchman one of his signature roles, having sung it to great acclaim all around the world—but this season marks his first turn as Wagner’s cursed captain at the Met. The performances are also his first with the company since 2012, when he finished his three-year run at the center of the Met’s new Ring production as Wotan.

As experienced a Wagnerian as they come, Terfel has sung all of the composer’s major roles for his voice type, but he calls the Dutchman the “most mystical” of them all. Based on a folktale that became a popular inspiration for many 18th- and 19th-century writers, poets, and artists, the Dutchman is the perfect vessel for the moody yet idealistic imaginings of German Romanticism—a brash sea captain who, as punishment for invoking the devil while struggling to sail through a violent storm, is doomed to endlessly roam the seas until Judgment Day, or until a love “true unto death” releases him from the curse. He is permitted to set foot on dry land just once every seven years, so that he may search for a woman, suitably faithful and pure, to save him.
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Terfel looks for the remaining humanity in a character that can easily become a one-dimensional figure from a ghost story. “There is a powerful sorrow within the Dutchman,” he says. “You don’t want him to be roaming without any feeling and without a soul.” He cites the title character’s lengthy Act I narration, in which the Dutchman introduces himself to Senta’s father and to the audience, pouring out his world-weariness and despair yet still revealing glimmers of hope. In Terfel’s opinion, it is one of the greatest monologues for the operatic stage.  

In the Met’s new production, the title character’s otherworldly nature will be given a unique visual representation. “We are creating a virtual shadow of the Dutchman,” says Girard, who stresses that his object was to portray the character as supernatural without resorting to any of the numerous ghost or zombie clichés. “As he moves, he carries with him a live-generated shadow, triggered by a dancer offstage who will mimic the singer’s every gesture.”            

The production also features an important Met debut, as the powerful German soprano Anja Kampe makes her first appearance with the company as Senta. She has sung the Dutchman’s redeemer with great success throughout Europe, including on several occasions opposite Terfel, who calls her a “tremendous, committed, passionate performer, who really gets her teeth into this role.” Girard gives her plenty to chew on, including some striking stage action during the crucial scene in Act II when Senta, intoxicated by the Dutchman’s portrait, sings her famous Ballad, recounting his harrowing legend while the other young women look on in alarm. In this staging, not only has the portrait been transformed into Macfarlane’s gigantic painted eye, which stares hauntingly back at her, but the movements of the women, who in the libretto are spinning yarn, have been magnified as well. Each singer or dancer holds a thick rope that disappears into the fly space above the stage, and as Senta sings, they slowly intertwine them to form a vast symbolic pattern. “Together,” Girard says, “they weave the net of destiny.”     

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When the staging has its premiere on March 2, maestro Valery Gergiev will be on the podium for his first Wagner at the Met since 2005, leading the brilliant Met Orchestra and Chorus in one of opera’s most thrilling and elemental scores. The composer’s earliest opera that is still frequently performed, it exhibits both the impetuosity of youth and the beginnings of the ideas that would come to define his style—and transform opera—in his later work.      

Composed in 1840 and 1841 when Wagner was not yet 30, Der Fliegende Holländer was partially inspired by a journey the composer took by ship through the Baltic and North seas. The trip was part of a dramatic escape in summer 1839 from creditors in Riga (in present-day Latvia), where Wagner was music director of the opera and was buried in debt. After slipping over the border to Prussia under cover of darkness, the composer, his wife, and their enormous Newfoundland dog—appropriately named Robber—found passage to London on a small merchant vessel called the Thetis.

Wagner’s first encounter with travel on the high seas was a harrowing one, as the ship was repeatedly driven off course by violent storms. The voyage ended up taking twice as long as scheduled and included an unplanned stop in a tiny fishing village called Sandwike, on the southern coast of Norway, where the Thetis took refuge during a particularly relentless gale.

The composer drew on this firsthand experience to create the entirely convincing musical depiction of a storm at sea that begins the opera, and the entire score is infused with this dramatic, stirring energy—from the slashing strings that stand in for howling winds and driving rain to the echoing horn calls that conjure the shouts of sailors bouncing back from the rocky fjords. He even went so far as to set the opera in the very same village where the Thetis had found shelter, and claimed that some of the music sung by the opera’s chorus of mariners was directly based on the rhythmic cries of the Thetis’s crew as they struggled to moor their ship in the stormy harbor.          

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These images and inspirations are carried through to the Met’s new staging: As part of their work to arrive at the look of their production, Girard and his creative team studied the rocky landscape of the Norwegian coast around Sandwike and researched the clothing of its inhabitants at the time of Wagner’s visit.          

Der Fliegende Holländer also marked Wagner’s first exploration of the leitmotif system—which uses recurring musical themes to represent characters, events, or ideas— that the composer would continue to develop and refine for decades, and which would become a defining characteristic of his style. “We are witnessing the seeds that will eventually grow into larger trees,” says Girard, who began his exploration of Wagner at the end, with Parsifal, “so we’re working backward, but still working with the same ideas.”             

In fact, the director has found that it’s impossible not to bring his experience with the composer’s philosophical final masterpiece to this earlier work. He sees connections everywhere. “Because we’ve explored Wagner’s grand attempt to reconcile all spiritualties in Parsifal, we infuse some of that in Der Fliegende Holländer, giving the journey of the Dutchman a spiritual resonance,” he explains by way of an example. “It’s a mirroring system; we’re bouncing the final conclusions of his ideas and systems back to their origin.”     
        

Jay Goodwin is the Met’s Editorial Director.