Like the maverick egotist yet undeniable genius composer Richard Wagner himself, his Bayreuth Festival is no stranger to controversy. The big event for 2012, a new production of The Flying Dutchman, made headlines a week before opening night when Russian baritone Evgeny Nikitin pulled out of the title role after images of his swastika-like body tattoos surfaced on German television. Presiding over their fourth season, festival managers Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner (half-sisters, both great-granddaughters of the composer) are evidently anxious to avoid any association with its murky Nazi past, and the production itself - the only new one this year - is an uncontroversial affair directed by 30-year old Bayreuth newcomer Jan Philipp Gloger.
Wagner’s Dutchman is eternally doomed to roam the seas. Most of the action in Gloger’s land-bound world takes place in a factory warehouse, but there are oceanic resonances in the pulsing lights of the vast Tron-inspired computer chips that dominate Act I. Heading a strong cast, Samuel Youn’s Dutchman - reimagined as a traveling businessman with carry-on suitcase - has presence but lacks line in the lyrical duets. Adrianne Pieczonka is in glorious voice as Senta, the “individual” personality in a crowd of automaton factory girls. The 150-strong chorus makes a phenomenally lusty sound, but the stars are the tireless players of the magnificent orchestra - utterly thrilling in the magical Festpielhaus acoustic - and peerless Wagnerite conductor Christian Thielemann.
The unbroken performance span (Wagner’s professed preference) means an uncomfortably long sit in the cramped Festpielhaus seats but, despite audience boos, Gloger’s production is largely successful. The relevance of the concept is ultimately less important than his vivid and harmonious representation of the music’s drama.