Angelology and the Wild Blue Yonder

The narrator of Richard Wagner’s novella A Pilgrimage to Beethoven mentions a performance by Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient with an admiration bordering on rapture. Her interpretation of the part of Leonore in Fidelio opens up the heavens before him. It frees him from the bondage of the night and brings him out into the light of day – like Beethoven’s Florestan. And no wonder: the comely singer turned out to be the first real German dramatic soprano, an artist who breathed the spirit into this oddly fractured masterpiece of Beethoven’s, and gave the wonderful tradition of Wagnerian and Straussian voices its beginnings. Did the youthful Wagner really see her onstage in this role? Highly doubtful. However, he certainly did have to do with her later, as a conductor and composer, and twelve years after the soprano’s death, he dedicated his sketch Actors and Singers to her. Schröder-Devrient also created several characters in his own works. In 1843, the memorable Leonore sang Senta at the Dresden première of Der fliegende Holländer.

Seeking out affinities between Fidelio and the earliest of Wagner’s operas to enter into the canon of his œuvre is a task as fascinating as it is dangerous. Fidelio was Beethoven’s only excursion into the world of the opera form, a work corrected many times by the dissatisfied composer and, if only for this reason, considered by many to be an unsuccessful experiment. In turn, Holländer is considered to be the vanguard of all of the wonderful things that appear in Wagner’s mature dramas. There is a bit of truth in this, and a bit of tall tale. I am more interested in the coincidences, chief among them the ‘instrumental’ treatment of the human voice, which in both operas must struggle with resistant material, carry over a dense orchestral texture, avoid the traps of an uncomfortable tessitura. There is a similar idea behind this procedure: Fidelio and Holländer mark successive stages in the departure from number-based opera in favour of continuous and coherent musical narrative. What is more interesting, however – especially from the viewpoint of contemporary stage directors – is that these are two operas about angels. Determined angels of deliverance in the form of women who put a stop to the torment of men. In Wagner’s œuvre, this motif later underwent a lengthy evolution. In Beethoven’s legacy, it appeared only once. It turned out to be so suggestive, however, as to give Wagner’s Senta a clear outline of Leonore moving towards the goal in spite of the outside world’s oppression, despite the doubts of her beloved chosen one.

I decided to leave myself the Wrocław Fidelio for later. On première day, I settled comfortably into my seat in the auditorium of a completely different house: the Art Nouveau-style Theater Lübeck, erected in 1908 according to the design of Martin Dülfer of Dresden – in place of the previous 18th-century building in which Thomas Mann experienced his first operatic rapture at a performance of Lohengrin. My choice had fallen upon Der fliegende Holländer, which returned to the Lübeck theatre in June, in a new staging by Aniara Amos. I had planned the expedition well in advance. It had been difficult to resist the temptation to see Wagner’s ‘marine’ opera by the Baltic coast, in the main port of the Hanseatic League – on top of that, under the baton of Anthony Negus, who had led two shows there in October, before the production of Holländer planned for the next season at his home house, the Longborough Festival Opera – with the forces of the same team that prepared this year’s performances of Die Zauberflöte.

My concept of the theatrical career and achievements to date of Amos, a Chilean resident in Germany, was quite vague: aside from having started as a dancer, she studied operatic stage directing with Achim Freyer and Peter Konwitschny; after that, she did a dozen or more shows in Austria, Denmark and Berlin, as well as at smaller German houses. They were received quite coolly by the critics. And no wonder: the ambitions of Amos, who had taken the entire weight of staging the Lübeck Holländer on her shoulders, did not translate into artistic success. In a chaotically planned-out and predictably-lit space, a veritable pandemonium of Regieoper played out. Instead of a tale of a wandering sailor’s sins being redeemed by Gottes Engel in the person of Senta, Amos proposed the story of an (up to a point) passive woman who falls victim to mass violence. Senta (to whom the director assigned three alter egos – a little girl, a teenager and a live figurehead on the prow of the ghost ship) is abused by everyone: the paedophile Daland, the Dutchman manipulated by him, the possessive Erik, the beastly spinners and the lecherous sailors. The grotesquely-clothed characters gleefully squeeze all of the Sentas into the two bathtubs placed on the stage, representing not only the element of water, but also a symbolism drawn from homegrown psychoanalysis (white bathtub – innocence; red bathtub – lust; several people in the tub – sexual act). Just in case, Amos provided the men with phallic attributes, from a shotgun, a red paddle, telescopes dangling from the sailors’ belts, to a gigantic lobster attached to the crotch of an apparition from the Dutchman’s ship. To make things even worse, she made the Steersman the prime mover of the entire narrative, characterizing him half as Death, half as Klaus Nomi – the androgynous icon of 1980s pop culture. In the finale, Senta tears the weapon out of Erik’s hands, rids herself of her persecutors, takes her alter egos by the hand and goes off into the wild blue yonder. To hell with angelology.

Der fliegende Holländer in Lübeck. Oliver Zwarg (Dutchman) and Miina-Liisa Värelä, Senta from the premiere’s cast. Photo: Olaf Malzahn.

Nothing left to do but close one’s eyes and listen. And there was plenty to hear. The strongest point of the cast turned out to be Maida Hundeling in the part of Senta – a beautiful, dark soprano of powerful volume, with a wonderfully open top register and broad legato. Paling a bit against that background was Oliver Zwarg (Dutchman), a very musical singer with superb technique, but not sufficiently expressive in the role of the gloomy sailor condemned to eternal wandering. On the other hand, it had been a long time since I had heard such a good Daland (Taras Konoshchenko), gifted with a bass of extraordinary beauty, but at the same time flexible and deployed fluidly enough to bring out all of the expected and less-expected ‘Weberisms’ from this part. Bravos for Wioletta Hebrowska, who was able to restore at least a bit of believability to the character of Mary with her excellent vocal craft. A solid performance was turned in by Daniel Jenz, a tenor perhaps too light for the part of the Steersman, which he paid for at the beginning with a few flaws of intonation, but still: his tone was cultured and nicely rounded in the top register. The only disappointment among the soloists was Zurab Zurabishvili – a shrill Erik with a heavy tone and forced vocal production. I was also not thrilled with the chorus – while the ladies more or less handled ‘Summ und brumm’, the gentlemen were thoroughly disappointing in ‘Steuermann, lass die Wacht’, singing with an ugly sound, without conviction and often dragging behind the orchestra. A pity, because Negus – after barely a few days of rehearsals with the local philharmonic – put the whole thing together into an extraordinarily convincing narrative, captivating in its energy and rhythm from the first measures of the overture. The sharp staccati of the strings, the ‘wind’ of the flutes blowing up a storm in the rigging, the thundering tympani, juxtaposed a moment later with the heartbreaking lyricism of the redemption motif – all of this confirmed yet again the class of this extraordinary conductor, who reads every score like a novel, not as a collection of musical sentences masterfully composed but empty in expression. Let us add that Negus’ reading of Holländer had a surprisingly large dose of Meyerbeerian horror, accentuated by skillful diversification of the orchestral textures and colours.

I returned to Poland with my heart in my mouth – the dissonance between the opinions of musician and music-lover friends on the one hand, and the first press reports after the première of Fidelio on the other, knocked me solidly off balance. The greatest blows were taken by the creators of the staging: costume designer Belinda Radulović, and artistic director Rocc of the Slovenian National Opera – which prepared the show in co-production with the Wrocław Opera – who was responsible for the concept as a whole. In one respect, I must agree with the critics: in removing the spoken dialogues, the directing team did violence to the substance of the work. All the more difficult to forgive in that it disturbed the already convoluted narrative, which for many listeners not familiar with the work became completely incomprehensible. It was not much help to substitute them with fragments from Beethoven’s letters to the ‘Unsterbliche Geliebte’, which introduced greater confusion and were justified only in the context of this staging’s general message. To my amazement, however, that message turned out to be surprisingly innovative, depicted clearly and perhaps even getting to the heart of the composer’s intentions. Rocc decided to turn Fidelio into a metaphorical parable about the angel of salvation. Realized in a gorgeous minimalist stage design, superbly accentuated by the stage lighting, against the background of which played out a tale bringing to mind associations with the world of mysteries and miracles of ages past, full of references to Christian pictorial symbolism. Leonore appeared in two forms – as a woman-angel and as her mysterious emissary who descends into the dungeon in order to free Florestan. The golden emissary (in the person of actress Karolina Micuła) brings to mind Renaissance portrayals of the angel who came to give succour to St. Peter, arrested by Herod. Don Pizarro – like the Biblical Herod – is evil incarnate, a person rotten to the core, a soulless brute to whom all concept of morality is foreign. The story told by Rocc sounds like an ending to the episode from the Acts of the Apostles which is basically the last report from the life of Christ’s companion. St. Peter did not go free, but rather entered another dimension, from that time on teaching in the form of an angel. Florestan died, and with him, Leonore and all the other characters of Fidelio. The finale is a plebeian image of Paradise, in which the once-degraded prisoners, deprived by Pizarro of gender, identity – and finally, life – dance about in colourful raiment, gifted with white lilies symbolizing innocence and resurrection. This entire miracle was performed by ‘Ein Engel Leonore’ and Florestan, whom she had saved – they were clothed in gold, the splendour of paradisiacal light, a colour accepting no shadow, divorced from all that is earthly. ‘My Angel, my All, my own self,’ as Beethoven wrote in his letter to the Immortal Beloved.

Fidelio in Wrocław. Saša Čano (Rocco), Jacek Jaskuła (Don Pizarro), Peter Wedd (Florestan), and the two Leonores: Karolina Micuła and Sandra Trattnigg. Photo: Marek Grotowski.

It is astounding that in the case of Fidelio, director’s theatre fans – of whom there are not a few in Poland – demanded an unshaven Florestan in rags, chained to the wall of the dungeon. I am also amazed that the expectations of some critics did not coincide with the musical interpretation of Beethoven’s only opera. While joining in the praise for Maria Rozynek-Banaszak (Marzelline) and Aleksander Zuchowicz (Jaquino), I shall also take the liberty of pointing out the superb performance of Jacek Jaskuła in the part of Don Pizarro and the two superb episodes of the Prisoners (Piotr Bunzler and Mirosław Gotfryd). I hasten to report that Jakub Michalski, a recent graduate of the Voice and Opera Faculty at the Academy of Music in Wrocław, turned out considerably better in the role of Don Fernando than most of his counterparts familiar from recent performances of this opera. I will admit without duress that I do not share in the admiration for Saša Čano (Rocco), who has at his disposal a bass of quite ‘well-like’ vocal production, to make matters worse rhythmically insecure. Sandra Trattnigg (Leonore) is captivating with a gorgeously-coloured voice that is slowly evolving in the direction of a true dramatic soprano – for this reason, I will forgive her slight fluctuations in intonation and not completely open top register. I heard nothing reprehensible in the singing of Peter Wedd, who presented a somewhat different vision of Florestan – more youthful and ecstatic – a year ago in Paris. This time, he was a broken prisoner, whose coming out into the light was lengthier and more arduous – but fully in harmony with the vision of the stage director and of conductor Marcin Nałęcz-Niesiołowski, who led his Fidelio at sensible tempi pulsating with energy, at moments considerably slower than those to which such conductors as Fricsay have accustomed us, at moments as exuberant as those familiar from the best performances of Beethoven’s masterpiece. This applies in particular to the finale, in which the Wrocław Opera chorus displayed not only a full sound and balanced vocal production, but also superb diction and understanding of the text.

During the intermission after Act I, I allowed friends to talk me into moving downstairs from the balcony to the ground floor. Thanks to this, I had the opportunity to hear all of the details of the deeply thought-out, dynamically and expressively nuanced interpretation of Florestan’s aria, but also to fully appreciate the acting artistry of Wedd, who realized one of Rocc’s most interesting directing concepts in a riveting manner. His Florestan sings ‘Gott! Welch’ Dunkel hier!’ in a full light that he does not see – blind after his long stay in the dungeon. The moment when the blind prisoner regains his sight, when Leonore kisses his eyes, is a picture worth a thousand words. I myself no longer had any words – perhaps out of amazement that the effort of the Wrocław Opera’s ensembles slipped by so sadly unnoticed – as if everyone had gone deaf and blind.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

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