Opera Review

DER FLIEGENDE HOLLANDER Royal Opera: March 24, 2000

It is not certain exactly when Wagner decided to turn the subject of the Flying Dutchman into an opera. His immediate inspiration seems to have been twofold: a telling of the Dutchman legend in a collection of fables by Heinrich Heine and a sea voyage that the young composer himself undertook which, because of a storm, cast him and his wife upon the shores of the Norwegian coast for a few days, that then eventually became the location for the opera's setting. Interestingly though, far more readily than with the scenarios of Wagner's subsequent nine music dramas, Hollander lends itself to a contemporaneous treatment - in the maritime community into which the mysterious Dutchman intrudes there's a real sense of the Romantic Age meeting the Industrial head on, of sailing ships turning into steamers, of the wheels of fate metaphorically also driving a mechanistic new world.

Reviving his production first seen at Covent Garden eight years ago, director Ian Judge attempts to give some semblance of that turbulence. A swivelling platform cleverly forms the ground for all three acts, functioning as ship's deck, factory floor and village square. Into each of the three settings too there symbolically and actually obtrudes the imposing bow of the Dutchman's ghostly hulk. But having set his scenes Judge then still does little with them, except gyrate his high-tech platform around countless times. Dull costumes from Deirdre Clancy (the womens' curiously seeming to date from about three centuries earlier than the mens') and dingy lighting by Mark Henderson contribute little to either atmosphere or focus. Nicely reproduced Caspar David Friedrich paintings litter the programme booklet but are not alluded to in the stage picture. There's hustle and bustle aplenty but they seem to conceal a hollowness, an interpretive void (surely this opera is about something?); and as such, at the end, give little inkling of the catharsis of redemption.

But also, it must be said, almost as beleaguered as the Dutchman himself seems to be the Royal Opera at present. Judge's staging is deliberately geared towards the one-act version which Wagner's later thoughts intended though he himself never got around to producing in his lifetime - it was first played without breaks at Bayreuth by his widow Cosima as late as 1901. Still, ongoing teething troubles with Covent Garden's computerised cueing system entailed the present staging reverting to the three act version, replete with two lengthy intervals.

Then, Bryn Terfel should have originally sung his first Dutchman ever for the company but, alas, illness forced him to withdraw to be replaced by Bernd Weikl. And on first night at least Weikl was considerably below par, almost reciting as opposed to singing the part with forced and strangulated articulation. Solveig Kringelborn fares somewhat better as Senta though she too seems to struggle with sustained line and stamina. Kim Begley makes something of a mark with the thankless role of Erik and there's a good Daland from the staunch Kurt Moll. Spirited (perhaps as opposed to polished) choral work just about rescues the vocal input. Orchestrally though things take a real nosedive. A usually assured Royal Opera Orchestra comes over as oddly scrappy under Simone Young's frenetic baton, with the horns especially sounding as if they're playing in a thunderstorm as opposed to evoking one. In fact on many levels the whole thing seems rather thrown together and ill-prepared.


Duncan Hadfield

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