Tim Albery's Olivier Award winning production of Der fliegende Holländer debuted at the Royal Opera House in the 2008/09 season, and returns here in its first revival.
The production has lost its central star turn – Bryn Terfel – though Terfel's replacement, Latvian Egils Silins, is charismatic enough in presence and strapping enough in voice that Terfel's absence is not too keenly felt. Silins is gruff and desolate in the existentialist central role. Vocally Silins is a little murky in the lower range, and he possesses a rather unmusical vibrato, but he conveys a strong vocal presence nonetheless. By the end, as the character is re-entering his loop of doom, Silins' voice is as winningly undomesticated as the moment demands.
Anja Kampe's returning Senta is as strong as she was in the production’s first run, with her gradually unhinging personality articulated beautifully in Kampe's shift from dreamy abstraction in the factory scene, into full-on vocal storm at the finale, where she gamely leaps onto an ascending gangplank before sinking to the ground in abject dread. Kampe's singing in the compelling love duet, matching that of her partner Silins, was especially expressive and sensitively realised.
The rest of the cast is a little patchy, though special mention must be made of the female and male choruses, whose singing captured especially well the swarthy intoxication of the setting, whilst maintaining ensemble coherence and in-the-pocket phrasing throughout. John Tessier's voice is a little light in the role of the Steersman, although the burliness of the surrounding voice cast would not have helped. Stephen Milling is jocular and winning in the role of Daland, providing a great foil for the tortured expostulations of Silins' Dutchman, whilst Endrik Wottrich, though initially lacking forthrightness, came into full vocal bloom as he eased into his long central scene with Kampe. Although Wottrich's voice cracked in the final concluding passages, this felt less like a distraction than an expression of the character's desperation at that point.
One of the great things about this opera is its economy of action. Very little actually takes place. In place of lots of little things, such as machinations, plots, deceptions, conflicts, there a couple of very big things. There is a sailor cursed to live out eternity in torment on the seas, unless he finds a woman who will be true to him for all time. This sailor meets a man who promises his daughter to him. The sailor meets the daughter, and hopes his curse is lifted. The daughter, as it turns out, is promised to another man. The sailor leaves, doomed. Of course on top of this superficial narrative there are suggestions of other things going on here, such as a Lynchian thinking through of the relationship between dreams and reality, and of the choice to engage with the things of the world or with its ghosts, but ultimately the thematic substance is limited.
The 'big things' of Der fliegende Holländer are thought through and staged most vividly on the level of the music, which is given significatory power through the conceit of the leitmotif. Albery's unfussy production, which uses Constance Hoffman's unglamorous 1970s working class dress and takes place on an inverted ship's hull, allows these significations to be articulated clearly and with a taut focus. The interrogatory love scene, for example, becomes almost metaphysical here. It takes place under an interview room spotlight, with the Dutchman and Senta seated on two opposing chairs under the spotlight. As the music repositions and rearranges the drama, the characters stand, circle each other a little, but come into little contact. This is typical of the restraint and subtlety of the production.
I have to go along with other critics in raising my objection to the directionless and sheer blandness of the willowing sheet that covers the stage for the overture, but otherwise, despite my occasional reservations about the effectiveness of the inverted hull stage, I found much to praise. The economy of the music and the opera is matched in the focus of the staging, with outburst and revelations, such as with the ghost crew's big reveal at the close, coming at all the right points in the show's 150 minutes (with no interval - a good choice here considering the intensification of effect that is achieved as things go on).
Jeffrey Tate's leadership in the pit likewise conveyed a keen sense of purpose, with the crucial motivic fifth sounding again and again in cleverly realised weightings and shades, and Senta's music, particularly, providing slowly-drawn emotional contrast with the turbulence of the surrounding musical developments.
The production rejects the option of redemption at the end, and this, along with Kampe's stormy characterisation and Silins' doom, brings the opera to a richly devastating conclusion.
Photos by Alastair Muir.