Oscar Wilde famously said of The Old Curiosity Shop: 'One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without dissolving into tears ... of laughter'. The same might be said of The Flying Dutchman where, in one of the silliest endings in a genre known for its silly endings, starry-eyed heroine Senta leaps into the sea to redeem the captain of a ghost ship. The 'Dutchman', sharing his name with his ship, has been cursed by the devil to roam the seas for all eternity – unless, that is, he can find a woman to marry him and save his soul. Unlike Heinrich Heine's short story, from which he borrowed the bones of the plot, Wagner's operatic version treats the subject in dead earnest. But, because he hadn't yet developed the musical vocabulary to bring off the idea of redemption through love, the result is the sort of popular romantic ghost story that Heine was mocking in the first place. This unintentional failure of high artistic ambition is – just as Wilde observed in Dickens's contemporaneous story – the perfect recipe for camp. The problem with the new ENO production, however, is that it can't make up its mind whether it's camping it up with Heine, or brooding introspectively with Wagner.
A less than perfect production is easily forgiven as long as the music is done well. But there were problems here too. Some of these can be put down to first-night collywobbles: the tendency for singer and orchestra to drift apart and some shoddy playing in the orchestra. (To be fair, the horns, as ever at ENO, were on fire, and there was some truly beautiful cor anglais playing.) But others are more deep-seated. While the moments of high dramatic tension and the big choral climaxes – the ghostly crew of the Dutchman terrifying the partying villagers, for instance – were as thrilling as they ought to be, much of the rest lacked any real forward momentum. Perhaps conductor Edward Gardiner was trying to be generous to his singers, but in this early Paris version, which runs for two hours without an interval, he can't afford to let it drag.
Of the soloists, the only disappointment was soprano Orla Boylan as Senta. She can certainly belt it out over the top of Wagner's brassy orchestra and was good at the passionate moments in each of her duets. However, in the intimate 'Senta's Ballad' where she relates the legend of the Flying Dutchman, and around which the whole opera turns, she wasn't able to draw the audience into her inner world by establishing an emotional connection.
James Creswell's stentorian bass added to his already formidable stage presence to make a Dutchman that you could believe would turn a teenage girl's head. Although, you did feel that this Senta would have said 'yes' to George Osborne if he'd turned up in a mackintosh.
Surprisingly, the star of the show was Stuart Skelton as Erik. I say surprising because the boring tenor who's been dumped by the leading lady for a more charismatic bass – think Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni or Don José in Carmen – can often get a bit whiney. This is especially true in Holländer: Erik's music is all quaint turns and neat diatonic melodies, in contrast to the chromaticism and rhythmic irregularity that gives the Dutchman and Senta their psychological depth. Not only did Skelton manage to shape this less interesting material into a convincing melodic line, he also managed to elicit the sort of sympathy that Boylan couldn't.
The production certainly had its moments, like the lighting during the overture. To illustrate her dreamy nature, we saw a younger Senta being tucked up in bed at home. Her imagination then transported her to the middle of the ocean where lighting designer Mark Henderson surrounded her by turbulent three-dimensional waves. But this sublimity was squandered when the Dutchman's figure came zooming over the ocean, finally to tower over her. Accompanied by Wagner's stormy orchestral effects – over-used in many a children's adventure film – the outcome was, shall we say, Disneyesque.
The attempt to colour-code Wagner's two types of music miscarried similarly. The demonic, internal, psychological half of the score was given blacks, reds and subdued lighting. Whereas the sea-shanty banality of the ordinary village folk was translated into everyday clothes for their grinding, repetitive labour in the factory, and then gaudy fancy-dress costumes when they were out on the town. It was a good idea, but somehow it didn't work in practice. Perhaps it's just too difficult to concentrate on a the struggle for a young woman's soul when your eye keeps being drawn to a giant bright-yellow inflatable palm tree.
And what about Senta's salto mortale? Well, director Jonathan Kent managed to avoid even the hint of a suppressed giggle by having her smash a beer bottle and then glass herself instead. There was probably a good symbolic reason for this – romantic escapism bottled as a fungible commodity seems to have been the dominant idea behind the staging – but it wasn't believable. OK, it's going to hurt, but it's going to take weeks to die of an injury as superficial as that. Camp might be unconvincing, but at least it's entertaining. This was just unconvincing.
For all that, this wasn't a bad night out – just not in the same league as ENO's recent best. There are plenty of outstanding individual turns – the lighting, some of the orchestral soloists, and Creswell and Skelton on stage. But in the end, the sublime and ridiculous components didn't come together in the right way to make a coherent or satisfying whole.
By Marc Brooks
Photo: Robert Workman