The chorus scenes in Cape Town Opera’s new production of Richard Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer are astonishing! Very rarely have I so desperately wanted to see an opera again immediately after opening night. I will remember the ghost chorus scene in Act III for a long time, not to mention the brilliantly comic update on the anachronistic Act II Spinning Chorus.
The Flying Dutchman happens to be my favourite opera, and I have longed to experience it live for a very long time; I missed the Wagner Society‘s 2011 production. I must admit that the anticipation inevitably set me up for disappointment. Although there were no real weak points in the casting, the fantastic chorus more than made up for the few flaws in this production.
Matthew Wild’s staging moves Wagner’s Norwegian setting to present-day Cape Town (2016, to be exact). In the legend, as told by Senta in Act II, the Dutchman was trying to round a cape, but the wind kept pushing him back. He swore that he would never give up until he succeeded. The Devil overheard him and condemned him to sail the seas forever. Every seven years he may step on land to find a wife, and if she promises to be true to him until death, he will be set free. The cape in the original legend is our Cape of Good Hope, and it is to this cape that we return.
Wild asks the following question in his programme notes: How are we to deal with our colonial ghosts? He then states that “This production does not seek to provide any answers.” This superimposed metacommentary replaces Wagner’s central theme, redemption through love, and despite a good setup, it doesn’t quite land.
During the overture, text on a black screen informs us that Jan van Riebeeck arrived in Cape Town in 1652 with his three ships, the Dromedaris, Reijger, and Goede Hoop. Wild’s Dutchman is the selfsame Jan van Riebeeck, who as the ghost of colonialism past still impacts the present.
The action in all three acts takes place on board a container ship. In Act I it is anchored off the South Cape coast after an unsuccessful attempt to round the Cape of Good Hope in a storm, and thereafter it is moored in Table Bay.
Kirsti Cumming’s spectacular video design is used effectively in several places. The stormy beginning of the overture is accompanied by a projection of tumultuous waves. Then, images of the Dutchman’s ship and ghostly crew flash on the ship’s map that hangs over a raised gangway, making it appear haunted. Finally the Dromedaris is projected in black and white onto a very large sheet of framed paper, through which The Dutchman makes his first appearance. Later, in Act III, the invasion of the ghost crew is accompanied by images of colonial atrocities, projected onto a screen covering one side of a small shipping container. Inside are a few dancing figures — dead slaves who are now part of the Dutchman’s crew.
Upon hearing that captain Daland has an unmarried daughter, the Dutchman offers to marry her in exchange for untold riches. These are the resources plundered by the VOC (Dutch East India Company), of which only a fraction is brought in on a lifeboat. Daland, a greedy and corrupt middle-aged white man, readily agrees to the transaction. With the stack of loot is a popup picture book, which the Steuermann opens to reveal a model of the Dromedaris.
Act II turns the Spinning Chorus on its head. Instead spinning wheels, a large workforce of girls in very short overalls gut and package fish, while apparently having a jolly old time. Celeste Botha’s choreography in this scene is a stroke of comic genius. Their work is overseen by Violina Anguelov as Mary, who resembles a dominatrix brothel madam more than a factory supervisor. In the middle of the stage, Senta, played by Johanni van Oostrum, dotes over a portrait of Jan van Riebeeck. There are also other portraits of South Africa’s pre-democratic history nearby, among them the opening of the Voortrekker Monument. She is shocked into silence when the Dutchman walks into the room moments after she had told his tale to the workers. He later presents her with the aforementioned popup picture book, which she opens to reveal a model of the Voortrekker Monument.
In the final scene it becomes clear why Wild’s question about colonial ghosts goes unanswered: there’s nothing in the libretto with which to answer! Instead of jumping in the sea and drowning, and thereby fulfilling the terms of the curse, Senta runs into the Dutchman’s arms where he stands on the lifeboat. The Steuermann, who had been fawning over the popup ship, lays the book down and ignites it with a burning ember from a barbecue fire. In so doing, the projected ship catches fire, and the Dutchman and Senta sink into the ocean. Why? Does this mean that both the ghosts of colonialism and Senta’s “romantic delusions about the ‘good old days’” (Wild’s director’s note) are now gone? And what then of redemption through love? To confuse matters further, the image of the Dutchman’s ship is replaced with a full colour video of a beautiful Xhosa girl in traditional dress blinking her eyes — the Steuermann’s beloved, whom he sings about in Act I. The couple are reunited while the curtain comes down, and while it makes for a touching scene, it seems like a desperate attempt at producing a happy ending.
The high and low notes
Tim Murray and the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra failed to inspire me during the overture. Apart from it being too soft, there was plenty of cracking, scratching and sawing. They soldiered on and improved gradually, and were in fine form in Act III. I was a little disappointed to learn that the onstage instruments and ghost chorus were prerecorded, but the sound engineering was superbly done. Murray’s dynamics were often on the soft side, except in the chorus scenes. I liked his tempi in general, but I found “Steuermann, lass die Wacht” a bit fast.
It fills the heart with a sense of national pride to hear two South African singers with international careers singing the two lead roles.
Jaco Venter made his role debut as the Dutchman. The role is vocally and dramatically challenging, and Mr Venter did a solid job. Opening night nerves were clear to see, notably in two places where he suffered intonation problems. His voice is not massive, but he managed to sing audibly without straining. There is a slight wobble around his high E and F which robs him of volume. Nonetheless, he surprised me with some beautiful lyric singing in the Act II duet with Senta.
Johanni van Oostrum’s Senta was near perfect. She has a strong voice, which made her ballad a riveting listen. She also displayed great tenderness in her scenes with the Dutchman and Eric respectively. Despite being twice the age of her character, she played Senta with the requisite youthful naivety and idealism.
Lukhanyo Moyake was charming as the Steurmann. His lyrical voice sailed through “Mit Gewitter und Sturm…” with ease, but the German language didn’t fall easy on his Xhosa-speaking tongue.
Samuel Sakker as Erik was every bit the raging jealous ex-lover, full of violent masculinity. In Act II he aimed his rifle at the Dutchman’s portrait, and in Act III at the sailor himself, and I was scared that he would really pull the trigger.
My favourite among the soloists was Gregory Frank as Daland. His bass voice is enormous and metallic, and he is clearly as well seasoned in his role as Daland is at sea. A greedy scoundrel he may be, but he was very much the likeable rogue in his aria and ensembles.