Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 24 February 2009 3 stars

Bryn Terfel as the Dutchman (Photo: Clive Barda)Debate has long raged over exactly how to pin Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer down. It is the earliest of the operas to be included in the Bayreuth canon and, following the composer's own lead, was officially recast as a Music Drama avant la lettre by Cosima Wagner after his death.

However, it is a unique work that both looks forward to Wagner's later masterpieces and backwards to the Romantic Schaueroper tradition; some early critics even complained that it marked a regressive step after the Meyerbeer-inspired Rienzi. As such, it presents a director with unique challenges.

Tim Albery's approach is unusual since it posits an unflinchingly tragic view. To be sure, opting for the 'Dresden' ending, without the post-Tristan reprise of the 'redemption' theme in the final bars, removes much of the certainty of the drama's conclusion. However, Albery's vision swings beyond ambiguity into tragedy to such a degree that it threatens to undermine the whole opera. Quite apart from anything else, it makes for a pretty bleak evening for the audience and results in a dramatically weak conclusion: as per the programme's synopsis, here 'Senta remains behind, alone'.

Much of the production – with neat and ingenious designs by Michael Levine – is theatrically satisfying on its own terms. I wasn't totally convinced by the overture being played against a wind-swept and rain-battered back-cloth, but the main set is imposing and austere. An abstract slab of weather-worn hull, curved up at either end, is adorned with a row of grimy portholes; a sturdy mooring rope is slung across the stage from the left. A ladder stands behind it, in front of another vast, shady structure; water runs along the front of the stage.

The arrival of the Dutchman's ship is powerfully and economically evoked by the stage gradually becoming enveloped with darkness. A battery of sewing machines descends from the heavens for Act Two's 'clothing factory' and part of the hull is raised to produce the below-deck scene for the Act Three party; most of the rest of the drama is played out with minimal adjustment. The sailors, in costumes by Constance Hofmann, are clearly employed thanklessly on a hard-working vessel, while the women they've left ashore toil away during the day before impatiently tarting themselves up for the evening's socialising. The replacement of the Dutchman's portrait with an anachronistic model of a galleon might not seem a terrible idea, but its constant presence on the stage after being distractingly brought on by Senta during the Dutchman's monologue, began to wear. The party scene was effective at first, on the other hand, but when the 'Ghosts' appeared, they were doused in ghoulish-green lighting, an effect which in its stock theatricality seemed to admit that the supernatural simply had no place in the production.

The sailors in Act One (Photo: Clive Barda)With all this, Albery has undoubtedly conjured up a authentically grim life both at sea and ashore. However, Bryn Terfel's Dutchman offers very little by way of contrast and he looks tired and battered when he trudges on for his great monologue, and remains so for most of the opera. We already have a stage essentially shorn of romanticism and, in denying the Dutchman nobility as a character, we also lose the essential romance of Wagner's story.

Here Senta's longing for rescue and redemption simply seems unrealistic when we see that the her potential saviour leads a life defined less by the grand tragedy of his supernatural damnation than by the same tawdry hopelessness that exists in her own community.

Matters on this occasion weren't helped by a performance from Terfel that swung between anger and supplicant self-pity, and which didn't hear him vocally on his best form. Although he started well with an impossibly hushed 'Die Frist ist um!' before roaring impressively into the main part of his monologue, the limitations of his approach soon became clear. There was too little middle ground between hushed whispers and a full-voiced declamation which occasionally turned into hectoring; in the final scene he was still producing the volume but the result, no doubt due in part to tiredness, was deeply unmusical. Much of the time he seemed unsure of what to do with Wagner's more traditional cantilena, studiously avoiding a smoothly produced legato line. At the start of his big duet with Senta, though, he just let the voice sing out, producing one of the musical highlights of the evening.

Anja Kampe and Torsten Kerl (Photo: Clive Barda)Making her Royal Opera House debut as Senta, Anja Kampe was probably the star of the production. She threw herself into the role with abandon – including hanging precariously onto rising gangplank at the Dutchman's departure, before leaping off – and often sang thrillingly. Her fearless approach led to a couple of rough edges, but she produced an outstanding Ballad and only tired slightly towards the end.

As Erik, Torsten Kerl sang with golden tone but strangely constricted sounding German. He was outstanding at the opening of his dream narration but his admirable attempts to bring the character to life made for an Act Three Cavatina where the melodic line was rather snatchy.    

Hans-Peter König's Daland was robustly sung and acted and directed with subtlety to produce a far more rounded character than we're used to from this role. John Tessier's Steersman and Clare Shearer's bossy Mary completed the cast. The augmented Royal Opera House Chorus was outstanding, and was directed naturally and effectively; the men were particularly fine in the party scene, the Norwegian crew heartily out-singing the Dutchman's.

The Clothing Factory (Photo: Clive Barda)Marc Albrecht's account of the score was well attuned to the production: swift, powerful and unsentimental. Under him the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House played with considerable verve, keeping up admirably with some fast tempos and furious accentuation. Wagner's score sounded powerfully raw and Albrecht was excellent at winding up the musical tension. However, he missed a great deal of the charm that pervades the work's lighter moments and hurried, for example, through the jolly duets between Daland and the Dutchman.  

Ultimately, it was the tendency – both in the theatrical and musical direction – to smooth over the opera's generic heterogeneity that proved problematic. This was especially so since it was carried out in the service of a concept which itself seems out sympathy with Wagner's intentions – original or retrospective. It is the hodge-podge of musical styles and moods coupled to Wagner's early idealism and Romanticism that, for better or worse, define this opera and help it maintain some sort of equilibrium. This production has a lot of good things, but it fails to capture that sense of balance and, in the end, prevents us from engaging with the characters on a human level.

By Hugo Shirley

Photo Credits: Clive Barda line

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