Bag pheasants, cue Dutchman for Wagner time in Hungary

Tue Jan 22, 2013 6:54am EST

(Advisory: This story contains profanity in paragraph eight.)

By Michael Roddy

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Only in Hungary would you see two hunters in full field regalia, with peaked hats, stride proudly into the backstage coffee house of the National Opera House one day with a brace of pheasants and find those birds on stage the next.

The gorgeous, preserved birds were attached to the hunter Georg's belt for a rip-roaring production of the original 1841 version of Wagner's sea-faring tale of damnation, love and salvation "The Flying Dutchman".

They were just one example of the attention to detail that made for an exhilarating evening - every bit worth the seven years' wait the Dutchman and his crew are condemned to sail the seven seas before he can come ashore and seek salvation in the love of a woman.

For a mostly sold-out run that had its premiere on January 19 and ends on February 2, the Opera House has brought in two casts.

On opening night Hungarian soprano Gyongyi Lukacs as Senta, German baritone Thomas Gazheli as the Dutchman and Hungarian tenor Attila Fekete as the jilted huntsman Georg made a magnificent threesome, with Austrian conductor Ralf Weikert keeping the musical seas roiling in the pit.

The Flying Dutchman was a midway point in the composing career of Wagner, whose birth bicentenary is being celebrated throughout the world this year.

Already though, it demonstrates a trait of the diminutive composer who was a big womanizer that Hungarian director Janos Szikora thinks is even more characteristic and important for understanding Wagner than his notorious anti-Semitism or the admiration of Adolf Hitler.

"I hear in every moment in his music he is always f...ing," Szikora told Reuters in a backstage interview.

He sat down to talk after inspecting the pheasants which replaced the Daffy Duck-like cartoonish props attached to the belt of Georg (renamed Erik in a revised version of the opera) in a cast photo in the slick and informative program booklet.

Here's what else Szikora had to say about a production that cleverly employs yards and yards of ribbon manipulated by the women's chorus to represent the spinning factory where Senta works and sings about the Dutchman of her dreams.

Video projections conjure up the cosmos and the storm-tossed ship of the Dutchman, whose fable Wagner decided to set to music after a particularly grueling sea-crossing of his own.

And the stage elevator is put to good use for the confrontational chorus between the men and women of the fishing village where Senta lives, and the Dutchman's ghoulish crew, outfitted with evil-looking false heads.

Q: Is this, then, the only opera in the repertoire that may well have been inspired by sea-sickness?

A: "No. For me the question Wagner is thinking about is man and woman, the male and the female. This story picks up where (Homer's) 'Odyssey' leaves off. Odysseus has to wander as a punishment for offending Zeus. It's the same in the 'Flying Dutchman' that a sailor offended a god by his own boasting and that's why he has been punished.

"So these today are myths and part of the culture and we focus on the man who engenders the anger of the gods, these are also topical today. In this Wagner piece the 'wandering Jew' and the 'wandering Dutchman' have nothing in common. In this respect the piece has nothing to do with anti-Semitism."

Q: For this production, the Opera House has chosen to stage the rarely performed original version of 1841, which is divided into three acts, but without intermission, while the later version plays straight through. Are there any other differences?

A: There is a formal difference which is that this is played in three parts without intervals...but also this version, the way it is interpreted in the orchestra, it is quite different from the regularly performed version...It does not really offer the regularly known Wagnerian image, but it shows a side of Wagner that can rarely be seen."

Q: You've directed everything from Neil Simon's "Odd Couple" to Verdi's "La Traviata" but you've never before done Wagner. What is this like for you?

A: "His was a mythology-creating theatrical mind....that's what I knew from my studies. As a director in a normal theatre I seek to direct pieces and works in the spirit of the 'gesamtkunstwerk' (Wagner's notion of a 'total art work'), I am very much inspired by that.

"When I am directing in a regular theatre I have always sought to put on stage a production that creates a harmony of sound, music and set, even when I am not directing an opera.

"And now at last this is my first encounter with the 'gesamtkunstwerk' for an opera which is a great and very important moment for me. I'm really delighted to have this opportunity."

(Editing by Paul Casciato)