Opera North is taking a break from the Ring cycle until next year. But some members of the winning team engaged on that Olympian project led by O.N’s music director Richard Farnes are reunited for Peter Mumford’s concert presentation of the earliest opera of Wagner’s “maturity”. The Flying Dutchman, with its sizeable choral chunks could have been tailor-made for the concert hall. The Victorians evidently thought so. An “oratorio- style” performance given by leading soloists of the day with a hundred-piece professional orchestra and an amateur chorus of 300 took place in this very hall on November 23rd 1898. Eighty years later, the fledgling Leeds-based company then still known as English National Opera North memorably staged Dutchman at the Grand Theatre with Peter Glossop in the title role and Arlene Saunders as Senta.

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Fast forward thirty five years and we find that Mumford’s dramatised concert concept for The Ring has now been moulded to the very different narrative style of The Flying Dutchman. The decision to perform the opera as a seamless single act running for 140 minutes -as Wagner originally composed the piece – is to be commended. Mumford’s adaptations to his staging have banished (for the time being) the giant video screens used for The Ring. In their place, English surtitles, images of storm-tossed seas and close-ups of the haunted eyes of the Dutchman are projected onto a vast billowing sail suspended above the orchestra. Arising from the depths of the orchestra to left and right is a pair of masts with a crow’s nest for the Steersman or the Dutchman himself to keep a lookout over land or sea. From my seat in the stalls the visual aspect is as though directly facing onto the deck of the Dutchman’s mysterious ship. The Orchestra of Opera North are spaced across the entire width of the stage or “deck” and might even be seen as the ship’s ghostly crew. Such is the power of the imagination engendered by Mumford’s deceptively simple staging combined with his atmospheric shadowy lighting of the monumental arches and columns in this flamboyant Victorian concert hall.

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The ambience of the 20th and 21st century auditoria the Dutchman’s ship is scheduled to sail into will feel different, but the visual imagery will be no less potent. The division of the fifty two strong Chorus of Opera North is striking, with the tenors and basses singing from the tiered choir seats behind the orchestra but the sopranos and mezzos singing from the acting strip in front of the orchestra and conductor Richard Farnes. Nothing could be further removed from a traditional concert performance with Chorus and principals singing from their books than Mumford’s fluid staging with thoughtfully drawn characters making their normal entrances and exits, and reacting emotionally to each other. A noticeable change from the Ring performances is that the six principals are now elegantly costumed c19th century, by Fotini Dimou.

Bela Perencz as the Dutchman with unearthly long hair and wearing a splendid great coat presented a formidable and suitably mysterious figure from another world. His baritone, dark and gravelly in texture but subtly nuanced, projected the sadness and desolation of the character. The power of Perencz’s opening recitative “Die Frist ist um” is tinged with sadness and regret and the sense of betrayal in his trio with Senta and her lover Erik deeply affecting. But that is nothing compared to the Dutchman’s final chilling narration announcing his true identify and regaling the terrible curse over him.

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Alwyn Mellor‘s Senta combines a touching vulnerability, tenderness and obsessive moral strength. Yet, I found myself less moved than by her Sieglinde, Brünnhilde, or Minnie. Perhaps Mellor seemed too matronly as Senta for my taste but the voice was in sovereign form throughout its considerable range, except for some of those top Bs and Cs which tended to harden and discolour under pressure. The heroic golden timbre of Mati Turi as Erik, dressed for the outdoors like a country gent, created a vivid impression. Ceri Williams’ rich contralto was deployed in its fulsome earthy splendour as Mary. Mark Le Brocq as the Steersman, fresh and youthful of timbre, was delightful in his Act l sailor’s song, before he falls asleep on the job. The awesome power of the bass Mats Almgren as Daland, smiling broadly as he bargains away his daughter in exchange for the Dutchman’s treasure, is simply unforgettable

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In a musico-dramatic sense, Wagner’s characters, particularly those of the gloom-laden titular role and that of Senta are unsurpassed, even by the standards of his later music dramas. The choral writing is superbly crafted and in terms of the high tessitura must have seemed immensely challenging for an amateur choir in Victorian times – even one of Yorkshire’s finest!

The resplendent Chorus of Opera North projected the German text with razor sharp clarity and a spectrum of tonal colour. The power of the Sailors’ lusty cries of “Ho-jo-he! Hal-lo-jo!” gave the impression of twice as many voices as the twenty eight tenors and basses arranged behind the orchestra. The sopranos and mezzos’ Spinning Chorus was wonderfully fresh and airy. Even these marvellous singers must have held something back for the devastating force of the stupendous ghostly finale with the entire stage now bathed in a chilling blood red glow.

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These dramatised concert hall performances of the Ring, and now The Flying Dutchman, have placed the orchestra centre stage, or in this case, as I alluded to earlier, on the deck of a spectral ship. The spatial effect in the gleaming acoustic of Leeds Town Hall is sometimes overwhelming, but always a revelation. An orchestra of nearly ninety (modest in proportion compared to the Ring performances) included an off stage band of horns, piccolos, tam tam and a wind machine. The fifty or so strings were unusually spaced across the full width of the extended stage – Second Violins to the extreme left and the seven Basses to the extreme right with the woodwind, heavy brass and percussion extending upwards into the tiered sections below the male chorus. Farnes unfurls a magic carpet of sound as he releases the sombre beauty of this score, and does so in crystalline detail. The balance between orchestral and vocal textures was meticulously judged. But much more than all of this, Farnes brings so much humanity to Wagner’s score, beginning with a luminous and thrilling account of the turbulent Overture. I feel certain that I will be drawn again to Leeds Town Hall for Tuesday’s repeat. After which, these enthralling dramatised concert performances of The Flying Dutchman can be experienced at the Sage, Gateshead (3rd July) Symphony Hall, Birmingham (5th July) Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool (8th July) and Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham (11th July).

4.5 stars

Geoffrey Mogridge

(Photos : Robert Workman from Opera North website)

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