Opera + Classical Music Features

Francesca Zambello on The Flying Dutchman: “Creating an obsession is our challenge visually, dramatically, musically” – Interview

As the director of the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre, he chose Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman as the last premiere for the season, inviting a team of experienced producers. The venture was always expected to succeed – not only because this early work is one of Wagner’s most popular, but also because Francesca Zambello was in charge.

Zambello, an American who grew up in Europe, debuted at the Houston Grand Opera Theatre in 1984 with Beethoven’s Fidelio. Her first production in Europe was Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda in Venice in 1987. Since then her work has appeared in opera houses in New York, Washington, Paris, Moscow and London. Based in New York and London, Zambello has won prizes in Europe and America. Emotional and sensitive, her productions are also frank and realistic. She is not afraid of taking risks, especially when it means plunging into the depths of the text and the music, inspiring everybody around her.

What brought Zambello to Vilnius to produce The Flying Dutchman? “Two things. I love most things from the East. I have always been fascinated by the Slavic countries and the Baltic states, their politics and their history. And a personal thing: Dalia Ibelhauptaite, whom I know in London, kept saying ‘Please go to Lithuania.’ Then I met Mr Charming [Gintautas Kevišas].”

But there was more than charm to him. “I was fascinated by the fact that people like Kevišas have a vision about changing their theatre. I respect very much his personal vision in trying to broaden the theatre as well as in bringing in different viewpoints. It’s a real accomplishment for a company to do Wagner. It takes a lot out of the company, the orchestra and the chorus. I hope the final product pleases both players and audience.”

How is Wagner relevant to the present day? Which of his operas does she prefer? “The reason why Wagner’s works have survived is because we can keep interpreting them in the light of our own times. No opera is easy to stage. Wagner is a composer who speaks to us daily in different ways. Number one is what the story is about. Because we are interpreters, we are not creators. For us it was a really good choice to focus more on this very simple world. We could flow easily from the world of the land to the sea, from the supernatural to the realistic, from the masculine to the feminine.”

“The main theme of the Dutchman is, of course, obsession. So creating an obsession is our challenge visually, and dramatically, and musically.” – Francesca Zambello

She’s keen to discuss the themes of the work and what it says about Wagner. “The main theme of the Dutchman is, of course, obsession. So creating an obsession is our challenge visually, and dramatically, and musically. And then I also think it’s obviously the most passionate work of Wagner’s because it’s the most romantic. Musically it still looks to the early 19th century in terms of having conventional arias and duets. So we had to find a way of keeping its energy alight.”

Zambello seems to enjoy coming back to the same opera in different theatres, as though carrying on her work, improving it and discovering something new. How does she find your work in Lithuania? How much in common do the productions in Bordeaux and Vilnius have? “There are many ways of interpreting an opera. I like working with people who get involved in the production. I’m not one of those who say: ‘It has to be this way.’ I have a clear vision of the production, but at the same time I want a joint interpretation of the libretto and the score. I want the singers to contribute something of themselves.”

Although the production in Vilnius is essentially an adaptation of the one in Bordeaux, in this version everything is new for the company: new scenery, new costumes. The set designer Alison Chitty has worked for many theatres in Britain, on the continent and in the United States. Her work has won many awards, and includes productions with Zambello. They also produced The Flying Dutchman, both in Bordeaux and in Vilnius.

“This production is a little larger,” she explains. “In Bordeaux we designed it for an absolutely classic 18th-century theatre with very simple technical facilities. All the flying is done by rope with very simple sets. So we made it a production that could work and flow with few intervals and stops. Here we have a 1970s theatre, and we’ve just expanded it a little. There is a bigger space, which is fantastic for us. We’ve got much more height here than we had in Bordeaux. And I think this makes the whole production more exciting.”

The director arrived several days before the premiere to put the finishing touches to it. Stephen Taylor, the producing director, did the hard work with the company. “Realising Francesca’s work is a pleasure. I have worked with her before,” he said several days before the premiere. “Working anywhere is obviously a process of communication and drawing from people’s nature their performance in their own presence and to their own convictions. So the building blocks that we use on any stage are human, and it’s a question of finding people, meeting them, explaining things to them and finding out what they have to bring.”

The conductor Gintaras Rinkevicius was an active participant in the Vilnius production, besides the six guest producers. It is not his first production of the opera. He directed it himself at the Vilnius Congress Concert Hall in 1997, and conducted it at the Savonlina Festival in Finland and the Shalyapin Festival in Kazan in Russia. He still conducts it at the Riga State Opera. “I know this opera well,” he says. “This new production differs greatly from the others. For me it is very beautiful and special, very well put together, with some cinematic elements.”

This production was staged on 26, 27, 31 March and 21 April, 2004; it will return to the repertory for further performances on 29 September, 10, 11 December.

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Francesca Zambello on The Flying Dutchman: “Creating an obsession is our challenge visually, dramatically, musically” – Interview