I have a great deal of empathy with the poor cursed Flying Dutchman. As I traipse around various British and European opera houses I feel doomed to never find a production of Wagner’s early masterpiece that remains truly faithful to the composer’s intentions. I’ve encountered sewing machines in the Covent Garden version, exercise bikes in Munich, a space station in Cardiff and twenty-four refrigerators in Stuttgart but never anything that truly gets to the essential heart of the piece. English National Opera’s interesting new modern dress production by Jonathan Kent is promising but flawed, although the show is redeemed by some magnificent singing and thrilling orchestral playing which ranks among the finest I’ve heard at the Coliseum.
Kent’s concept centres around the fantasy world of the obsessed Senta, first seen during the overture as a ten-year old child in pink pyjamas, reading a book about the Dutchman while her father Daland goes out to work on the dark stormy seas (some brilliantly evocative video imagery by Nina Dunn). An intriguing start, but the continued presence of the little girl – centre stage on her bed – throughout the entire first act became an unwanted distraction, not to mention the disturbing suggestion that it was a pre-pubescent child (and not Senta the young woman) that Daland was happily selling in marriage to a complete stranger. Designer Paul Brown’s set consisted of stark metal walls and an upper level room accessed by a spiral staircase which served both as the interior to Daland’s ship as well as the run-down factory where Senta and her friends are busy assembling miniature Flying Dutchman ships in bottles (£12.99 + free delivery from Amazon) while wearing drab blue overalls and hairnets reminiscent of Act II’s sewing factory employees in the Covent Garden production.
The Dutchman himself looked like Eugene Onegin who had wandered into the wrong opera, almost too elegant in a beautiful long black Victorian frock coat and red velvet waistcoat – not a particularly realistic look for a weary, weather-beaten mariner after a heavy storm but his overly romanticised image was obviously straight out of Senta’s fantasy and this production did leave me wondering whether he did actually exist at all or was merely a figment of her imagination, particularly as this shadowy character came across as so other-worldly and aloof, almost as if he wasn’t human. The moment when the Dutchman’s ship crashes violently through the walls of Daland’s ship is an impressive theatrical device, although how Daland’s ship manages to sail home afterwards with a gigantic gaping hole in the hull is a mystery best overlooked.
Though Kent’s production has some interesting ideas and a good deal to recommend it, I’m afraid his handling of the Act III sailors’ chorus spoiled it for me somewhat. There shouldn’t be any laughs in Der fliegende Holländer but this drunken party saw the chorus in ridiculously garish fancy dress costumes, including one chap apparently dressed as a dancing parrot and another jumping about the stage with an enormous inflatable carrot between his legs. Suffice to say there was so much hyperactive distraction occurring on stage that it was almost impossible to pay attention to the music (which was a pity, considering the ENO Chorus was on truly superlative form). The general silliness rapidly degenerated into vulgarity and violence as poor Senta was sexually assaulted and nearly gang raped. I’m not suggesting for a moment that the Norwegian sailors should all sit around and politely drink tea during this scene but when the on-stage excesses get in the way of the music to this extent I do have an issue with it. I also felt the ending was something of an anticlimax; the Dutchman disappears down through a trapdoor in a Mephistophelean manner and Senta stabs herself to death with a broken wine bottle – a gritty and depressing ending that is 100% redemption-free.
Musically, however, this was a stunning performance and Edward Gardner (conducting his first ever Wagner opera) launched into the tempestuous overture with a breathtaking energy and intensity that never flagged throughout the entire evening – somehow getting through the score in an almost unbelievable 2 hours 10 minutes without the tempi ever feeling rushed. Gardner created beautiful dynamic contrasts in the slower, quieter sections while maintaining the underlying tension and ensuring that the big dramatic moments were suitably Wagnerian, both in grandeur and in volume. The orchestral playing was uniformly excellent and inspired, although special praise is due to the brass section, particularly the French horns.
ENO fielded an extremely strong cast with barely a weak link, led by the superb Irish soprano Orla Boylan as the deranged Senta. I’ve heard Boylan as Tatyana, Sieglinde, Ariadne and Lisa (Queen of Spades) in the past but her Senta was quite a revelation. After an uncertain start and a few intonation issues in the Ballad she really attacked the role and produced some electrifying singing with laser-like, beautifully focussed top notes that cut through the loudest orchestration with ease. It’s a very big dramatic voice with a slightly steely edge but full-bodied and radiant in tone, quite ideal for this part (although my colleague commented that she should be singing Elektra!) A convincing actress, she made a compelling and sympathetic, psychologically unhinged heroine. After a performance like this I can’t help thinking that Brünnhilde might one day be on the cards for her.
The titular Dutchman was sung by American bass-baritone James Creswell, whom I last saw back in January as Oroveso in Opera North’s Norma, a role which he sang extremely well but which gave him little opportunity to demonstrate his Wagnerian credentials. When it comes to the casting of this role I’m extremely difficult to please, having been spoiled by hearing Bryn Terfel sing the part about ten times in three different productions. Suffice to say Creswell impressed me greatly – a majestic, velvet-toned Heldenbaßbariton who sang with astonishing elegance and sensitivity but still had sufficient heft for the big dramatic outbursts in “Die Frist ist um”. According to his programme biography Creswell will be singing Mephistopheles at Opera North and I will certainly be travelling up to Leeds for that. A pity that Kent’s direction makes the character so static and emotionally restrained, although I suspect this might have been a deliberate part of the concept to portray the Dutchman as a fantasy figure instead of a real person of flesh and blood. The moment when Senta embraced him and he just stood there, unresponsive as a statue was a nice touch, calling to mind her father’s inability to demonstrate physical affection towards her as a child during the overture.
Heldentenor Stuart Skelton also did a splendid job in the thanklessly unsympathetic role of the whining Erik – here a uniformed security guard instead of a hunter in the updated setting, and dismissively referred to as an “office boy” in David Pountney’s otherwise inoffensive English translation, thankfully free from any risible rhyming couplets. Skelton’s voice has a bright and vibrant ringing top and a rich heroic timbre, quite thrilling to listen to.
Clive Bayley’s Daland needed a bit more gravitas, although it didn’t help that he was lumbered with a scruffy old costume which didn’t differentiate him from the other sailors or show his higher rank in any way. However, he sang extremely well with a warm middle register and excellent clear diction throughout, even if some of the sustained notes above the stave were somewhat underpowered. Bayley gave a strong acting performance too and you really got a sense of who the character was.
Tenor Robert Murray’s Steersman was beautifully sung and he really made his mark on this small role, although I was less moved by Susanna Tudor-Thomas’s rather anonymous Mary, here portrayed as a chavvy factory supervisor in a short skirt. The ENO chorus made a fantastic contribution and it’s the best and most powerful singing I’ve heard from them to date – with special praise due to the tenors in Act I in particular who produced some glorious high notes.
For an exhilarating evening of first class Wagner, the ENO’s new Dutchman should not be missed and there are six remaining performances at ENO in May. As for this poor critic, I will continue in my hopeless search for the perfect production but will certainly be returning to the Coliseum for a second viewing.
(Photos by Robert Workman)