The French-Canadian director is bringing the Met his vision of “Der Fliegende Holländer” (“The Flying Dutchman”), which tells of a sailor condemned to sail the seas for eternity unless he can find a woman willing to be faithful to him until death. He finds such a woman in the heroine, Senta, who is obsessed by a portrait of the Dutchman hanging in her home.
In Girard's interpretation, the focus of the opera is more on Senta than on the Dutchman himself. “This is the central argument of the piece,” he said in an interview a week before the opening. “It's the story of a girl who is looking at a painting so intensely that it comes to life and will swallow her into death.”
The first thing audiences will see as they enter the auditorium is a painting by set designer John Macfarlane that is framed by the Met's gold proscenium and shows a glowering eye embedded in a stormy sky. It represents the Dutchman's portrait, and as soon as the curtain rises during the overture we see another eye in the background and a dancer dressed in red who stands in for Senta. (In Wagner's libretto, Senta doesn't appear until Act 2.)
That red dress is the only splotch of color in a production where sets and costumes are deliberately drab, filled with blacks, whites and grays. “It's the red of passion, of human life and blood,” Girard said. “She's the center of gravity of the piece and she has to stand out.”
As for the Dutchman, he becomes an extension of Senta's imagination, “a ghost who comes out of the cosmos and takes a human form.” A giant shadow figure mirrors his movements in the background, and we glimpse his ship taking form in the cloud-smeared sky. Later, his crew is depicted by blobs of light.
Perhaps the most striking visual image is a forest of ropes dangling from the flies in Act 2. The women of Senta's village twirl these to suggest their weaving — instead of using spinning wheels as indicated in the libretto.
“It's really Senta's destiny that they're weaving,” Girard said. “They become twisted and increasingly knotty as she's getting caught in the web.” Girard, who is also a filmmaker best known for “Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould” and “The Red Violin,” said his decision to focus on Senta is “a little bit like a film where you have a choice of using a wider lens or going a little bit closer up. Yes, I am making the directorial choice to stress certain elements vs. others, but it's done in light of the meaning of what is in the text and the music.”
The new production, which opens March 2, stars bass-baritone Yevgeny Nikitin as the Dutchman and soprano Anja Kampe as Senta and will be conducted by Valery Gergiev. (Nikitin was a late replacement for Bryn Terfel, who broke his ankle shortly before he was to arrive for rehearsals.) The March 14 matinee performance will be televised live in HD in movie theaters around the world.
Girard's first venture into Wagner was in 2006 when he directed “Siegfried,” the third of four operas in the “Ring” cycle for the Canadian Opera Company. His Met debut came in 2013 with his widely acclaimed “Parsifal,” Wagner's last and most complex masterpiece.
“Dutchman,” on the other hand, is the earliest of Wagner's works frequently performed and shows a composer still finding his way. “To go from 'Parsifal' to 'The Flying Dutchman' is a big, big step backward,” Girard said. “But if you accept to direct it you have to serve it with as much generosity and love as you can.
“'And I have to admit that at first I was a little scared of that,” he added. “Because I was so into 'Parsifal.' The transcendence of every aspect of it. Then you listen to 'Flying Dutchman' and say 'I have to direct this? Eccch.' But very soon I embraced it because Wagner's genius is present all along. I don't think there's any part of this opera now that I don't love.”
And he'll be back at the Met with more Wagner. The company said he's developing a new production of “Lohengrin” for a future season.