ZURICH, Switzerland (AP) — There's scarcely a ship or a sailor to be seen in the wildly revisionist, weirdly anti-colonialist new production of Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman" at the Zurich Opera. But, fortunately, there is Bryn Terfel.
The Welsh bass-baritone was in splendid voice and commanded the stage with mesmerizing, hulking presence as the Dutch mariner condemned to sail the seas until he finds a woman faithful unto death. It may be a slight exaggeration to say Terfel single-handedly redeemed the spectacle that premiered Sunday night — but only slight.
One night earlier the company presented Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera" in a musically vibrant but similarly befuddling production, this one a revival of a staging by David Pountney first seen two seasons ago.
But "Dutchman" was the big news, because it's the first production directed by Andreas Homoki since he became general manager of the opera house earlier this year. With the license that comes from the European fashion of radically reinterpreting standard works, Homoki apparently decided to turn Wagner's romantic ghost story into a cautionary tale about the evils of bourgeois greed and imperialism.
Daland the sea captain becomes head of a shipping company, and his sailors are desk-bound clerks, keeping in touch by telephone on the progress of a returning ship. A map of Africa on the wall marks its ports of call, and Daland keeps a fez-wearing African manservant. Daland's daughter, Senta, and the other women are no longer seamstresses but office workers who sit at typewriters instead of spinning-wheels. And the only time we see a ship among Wolfgang Gussmann's sets is when a painting of a turbulent ocean churns to life and the Dutchman's ship with red sails emerges from the waves.
None of this sheds any particular new light on Wagner's opera, but at least it sticks to the broad outlines of the plot. Things turn really perverse in the final scene, when Daland's crew tries to rouse the ghostly sailors aboard the Dutchman's ship. Suddenly, the African servant morphs into a spear-carrying savage, and the map of Africa goes up in flames. Senta proves her loyalty not by jumping into the sea to join the Dutchman but by shooting herself with a hunting rifle.
Terfel, wearing a fur coat with long brown hair hanging over the collar and streaks of dark makeup that accentuate his piercing eyes, manages to keep his dignity amid all this and creates a searing portrayal of a man possessed. Reprising a role that sounds almost easy for him after his recent exertions as Wotan, Terfel musters stentorian power for the climaxes but sings many passages with a quiet, yearning tenderness.