Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Faith on Earth is a Thing of the Past : Le Vaisseau Fantôme at the Opéra Bastille

As the Vorspiel draws to a close, the curtain rises on a vast pale room. Stage left stands a vastly proportioned door which will make dwarves of the protagonists (and giants of their shadows), stage right a kind of frame within which shimmers the image of a woman gazing dutifully up at a painting of a storm. The curious insubstantiality of this image, its coved frame, raise the question whether this image of an image is itself a filmed projection (for soon we see the woman within shift her posture slightly), or perhaps (as we soon discover to be the case) sheltered behind a scrim. Is this woman but a dream dreamt by the present scene, herself dreaming of a ship lost on stormy seas - a ship that we soon discover ourselves, as sailors bearing ropes come marching through the great door, to be aboard? Towards the end we will find ourselves questioning the reality status of this painting once more, as lighting effects expose the audience to a collectivised Stendhal Syndrome.

Richard Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer (rendered in French as Le Vaisseau Fantôme), as performed last night at the Opéra Bastille in Paris, is an opera at the crossroads (meeting the devil, perhaps?), an opera of counterpoint and contradiction. Composed in the early 1840s after a tumultuous sea voyage across the Norwegian fjords, undertaken to escape his creditors, (but inspired just as much by a satirical tale by Heinrich Heine), Wagner no doubt sympathised with the sea captain Daland's willingness to offer up his daughter, Senta, to the Dutchman in exchange for his treasure.

Written, then, in something of a hurry, in the hope (vain, as it happened) of escaping penury, The Flying Dutchman lies midway between classical opera and Wagner's later mature style and contains elements of both. Performed last night (as it frequently is) absolutely continuously, without breaks between its three acts, and yet with clearly defined arias to disrupt the smooth flow of arioso. There is even at times, such as the early dialogue between Daland and the Dutchman, something approaching secco recitative, yet punctuated by chords far more caustic than anything you might find in Handel or Mozart. It is also contains some of Wagner's earliest uses of leitmotifs, and remains the earliest of his operas to have been performed at Bayreuth.

Generically, though based on a comedy, the story is a tragedy, yet its hero sings bass (with nothing of the buffo about him) with a ghostly tremolo, serving to emphasise the weak, effeminacy of his rival for Senta's affections, Erik (a tenor). A love story whose lovers scarcely touch, embracing only twice (both times within the same scene) and but fleetingly. They seem to spend most of their time divided by the vast blankness of the stage, looking away from each other, scarcely capable even of seeing each other. At one point they seem to almost pass through each other, both as ethereal, as insubstantial as each other. As Senta lays dying she clings not to the Dutchman's body but to his portrait, in love more with the myth than the man.

In stark contrast to the lush warmth of the orchestration, the mise-en-scene and lighting was all cool minimalism in blues and greys. Even as the lights brighten in the second act, it is the harsh winterlight of a Bergman film (fitting its Scandinavian setting). My companion and I found ourselves comparing the staging (by German theatre director, Willy Decker) several times to the cinema. Most conspicuously, with its obtusely projected stage, long shadows and acute forced perspective, to German expressionism. Before the Dutchman's first appearance on dry land, we see for a long time his shadow, projecting from the door jamb. The image recalls nothing so much as Dr Caligari's somnambulist, Cesare.

From its opening storm to its Hoffmann-esque themes of the uncanny intrusion of the supernatural into the quotidian domestic sphere, The Flying Dutchman may be the ultimate romantic opera, the very apogee of romantic art. But in pushing romantic illusionism and suspension of disbelief to its limits, it seems to leap out of its frame (like the jutting stage itself) and force a certain self-doubt, a radical questioning of its own artifice which looks to the future in more than one direction. Last night's performance may have offered us a dream within a dream, a dream that dreams itself in an endless strange loop, still, for all its spectral shimmer, it retained a certain crisp clarity. Like lucid dreaming, it offered the dreamer the chance to become aware of its own reverie, thus offering the utopian possibility of infinite transformation.