Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Le Vaisseau fantôme d'une confrontation sociale (2)

This was maybe the first opera in which Wagner announced his approach to composing, to structuring the musical language in such a way that it supports the flow of the dramatic action [instead of interrupting it by the occasional arias]. This opera is still far from what Wagner would make later, but here you can already see a clear distinction from what's been done before him.

The smartest element in the libretto of The Flying Dutchman is its ambiguity that allows countless interpretations, and as many ways to keep this opera in life in theaters (is it about the Dutchman?, or about Senta?; is the Dutchman real?, or he's just a product of fertile imagination?...) Martin Kusej goes a step beyond and stresses the role of Erik much more than the other directors did/do.

Kusej exhibits his cold way to depict the "naked truth" (always with a white background to emphasize the contrasts), and his well-known "cruelty" to push his interpretation of the libretto farther than necessary. In the process he often goes against the expectations of typical operatic audience, i.e. there is no happy-ending nor you leave the show filled with optimism. His work forces you to think rather than dream.

In a sense his show was telling the audience that they are being insensitive [self-centered] and borderline obnoxious, which is why I found the joyful applause at the end quite incongruent. [Apparently he was booed at the premiere ---> a far more conceivable reaction, if you ask me :-)]

There is no doubt:  Martin Kusej is a cynical Westerner with a certain dose of cruelty which resembles that of Quentin Tarantino, although their styles are totally different.

Whatever the way you choose to see the Kusej's interpretation of The Flying Dutchman, his accent is clearly put on the growing social difference. His final message (the way he decides to end the show) is a big warning: he sees the inexorable confrontation of the "two worlds".

More specifically, the simplest way to interpret the Kusej's Dutchmen is that of the black Africans trying to reach the West -- the West who rejects them, fears them, to the point of even being ready to kill them.
[The West here is only for definiteness. It applies equally well to Russia, Japan... in short any modern/'rich' country]

The West is depicted quite realistically (this is me being cynical!): the world of "spoiled children" -- a collection of airheads rushing to go for more and more shopping, who care the most about their belongings and their appearance: "fancy" cloths, big boobs, blond hair, beauty parlors... The Dutchmen, instead, are the ghostly creatures in black hoodies, who are desperately trying to cross the line and reach the world of opulence and "well-being".

While the girls in the Daland's house are "having fun" [the front part of the scene], behind the glassy doors is a peaceful swimming pool (the North Sea transposed) where the guys in the hoodies would show up moving like the butterflies around a light-bulb: too scared and too thrilled to look through the door, at the world they dream of but they don't belong to. Once they dare to touch the doors, they are being shot at. There is an an atrocious scene in which one of the blacks sticks to the window (like in the poster-picture below!), and only a few seconds later he's shot dead leaving a dreadful blood stain on the window which would drain for a couple of minutes; and on the front side nobody cares! The world of the rich is "protecting" itself from the poor.

Of course the story of Senta is interpolated in that canvas, but the taste of this underlying awkwardness puts you in that semi-uncomfortable state and keeps you there until the end of the show.

The other way to see Kusej's Hollaender can be made more "locally", i.e. a deepening social gap in any modern country where the wealthy and the poor decouple to the point of social perversion.

Either the interpretation you choose to follow ('global' or 'local'), you can easily see the Dutchmen as real [immigrants, poor, or explicitly the Africans], or  imaginary - a symbol of a constant fear of the rich [fear from immigration (Africans in Europe, "Mexicans" in the US), or from the riots in the poor suburbs spilling over to the wealthy neighborhoods. ] This imaginary/ghostly picture is even physically present in Act-3 when Kusej puts the blacks in the center of the stage, while the chorus is split in two and placed behind the stage on the opposite sides -- their physical presence is decoupled from the sound of their voices, giving them a particularly surrealistic appearance.

Of course this is only the main line along which many episodes are cleverly inserted to follow the libretto and to corroborate the above theatrical statement. Instead of going through a detailed description of the show, I'd rather point out two significant departures from the libretto made by Kusej:

(1) Act-1 does NOT begin on the ship. Kusej placed it in some holiday resort where the storm is arriving and the panicky tourists are coming to find a shelter. They all wear life jackets and carry their bags and suitcases ("your life is in your bag"). The same glassy doors are protecting them from the  raging storm (you see the rain and winds behind the doors), and you can see the contours of the black guys in the fog already. During the following night the Dutchman will enter the shelter and there Kusej follows the libretto, but on his own terms -- in this socially malfunctioning framework.

(2) Act-3: in the end Erik kills both the Dutchman and Senta. After all the emphasis on the deepening gap between the two social groups/classes, and after showing a party where several rich guys take the baseball bats threatening to attack those in black-hoods [the Dutchman and Senta are obviously among the blacks!], Kusej sees as natural to end the opera in his cruel-cold-pessimistic way. He sees no other issue. The shotgun is his wake-up call to us...
You can also see it as a culmination of Erik's desperation: Senta is with the Dutchman and there is no way he can win her back. You can also see it as his way "to save Senta". I explain: Erik showed a gun before, and you may suspect that he was the one shooting the black-hoodies during the Act-2. Senta leaving with the Dutchman is a reason more to kill the Dutchman; at the same time his hatred towards the Dutchman a justification to kill Senta - to save her from going with infidel: this is how his love to her overlaps with his hate for the Dutchman. 

It is only apparently simple story but it digs very-very deep with many double/triple senses. I hope it will soon be released on DVD so you could enjoy it too. You should know that there are still 4 more shows to go, and you might wish to see it live in Amsterdam [it's most definitely worth a trip to this fantastic city]. See the pics on the DNO website. Now with the keys I gave you above you may (hopefully) see the story a bit clearer than before. 

In the theater this is a tough show: There is no intermission and Kusej grabs you in the second scene  (the storm) and keeps you in that semi-uncomfortable state for about 150 minutes. In the end you feel almost liberated, thrilled, amazed, weird... Really excellent theater! Thank you Master.

I read in the program (8€) that starting from 2011, Martin Kusej will be the intendant of the Residenztheater in Munich.


  1. Looking forward to the DVD...

    I'll go to DNO next Easter for Les Troyens... :-)

  2. I hope to go to see that too. I have a ("small") surgery waiting for me and it may fall around Easter, so...
    Les Troyens is one of my fav operas + I love Eva Maria Westbroek and Yvonne Naef must be great as Didon + Nicolas Testé is superb too. BTW, I don't know the guy who will sing Énée. Do you?