The Dutchman that flew, except when it didn’t

Hazy Sunset at seaTim Albery’s production of Der Fliegende Holländer returned to Covent Garden and, better late than never, I’m able to jot down my thoughts on the last night, 4 November.

It was notable for a very split approach to the pacing of the drama: onwards from the meeting of Senta and the Dutchman, right through to the conclusion, it was electric; Senta’s Ballad, however, seemed to me a perverse essay in how slowness can be confused with profundity and, momentarily, it threatened to derail the whole two-hour-and-a-half hour enterprise.

Albery’s production is a stark, relatively efficient affair.  The copious rain that washes down the swirling curtain during the overture is a great effect, conjuring ominous nautical storms… but also setting one’s bladder on edge at the start of such a long slog of an opera.  The gaunt gunmetal grey slope of the stage conjures an image of the imposing prow of a merchant vessel, with the only really significant interventions being the flying-in of banks of sewing machines for the spinning scene and the addition of a gangplank for the conclusion when the Dutchman takes his leave.  There are incidents of detail within that, two of which are notable: the shadow that sweeps steadily across the stage, eerily complementing the music that announces the arrival of the Dutchman’s vessel; and the preparations for Senta’s Ballad, when the seamstresses switch off their individual fluorescent lamps, a series of little clicks and a steady darkening to throw focus on the imminent story-telling.  One a chilling effect; one delightfully domestic and human-scale.  Less successful is a lot of business with a model boat that sits on a continuous moat separating stage from pit.  Whilst not offensive, it’s a bit opaque and, occasionally, clumsy.  Senta’s death, which is intended to set the seal on her commitment to be true until death, and therefore to be the Dutchman’s salvation, is curiously fudged and I can’t honestly say whether she did or didn’t die and, therefore, whether he is or isn’t saved.  She just sort of flopped to the ground under the weight of her model boat, and I’m genuinely none the wiser about what this production is trying to say.  As the harbour community shrink away from her, after her attempts to cling to the Dutchman’s gangplank, there are hints of the oppression of Britten’s Peter Grimes, but alas nothing like enough to really justify reinterpreting (or, at any rate, blurring) the ending.

Anyway, that’s not the be-all and end-all, really (even if it is supposed to be for Senta).  Along the way, we were treated to some very committed performances of these demanding lead roles.  As the Dutchman, Egils Silins was in a subtle, lyrical vein, rather than a more overt, dramatic portrayal.  Up close (i.e. through the binoculars) he was remarkably steady in his acting of the alienated Dutchman, darkly uncertain around his new admirer and her father.  It wasn’t a declamatory voice, but he held the line with solid clarity and maintained the long span with consistency.

In the fiendish role of Senta, Anja Kampe has proved her mettle in the production before and she did so again.  Her voice is a steely sound and she seemed remarkably unflagging in a taxing role, with the high-octane final scene wanting for nothing in terms of projection and stability in the face of the histrionics.   Her diminutive figure casts Senta in a thrillingly realistic light.  She was captivatingly intense, throwing a real question mark over what is really going on for this woman who believes the myth, and then so readily meets the myth on his own terms.  As one of our company remarked, as the final chord fell to silence: “what a f**ked-up opera.”  I would suggest that the detail and disturbing commitment of Kampe is largely to be credited for the power of this performance.

As Erik, Endrik Wottrich deployed a rather constricted tone, which despite a steadiness and consistency sat curiously at odds with his solid frame and large-scale acting.  As a portrayal of Senta’s alternative, earth-bound love option, it missed the subtlety of Kampe herself in painting the portrait.  As her father, Stephen Milling was rich, solid and naturalistic in his acting.  Well, as naturalistic as you can be when you’re readily offering up your daughter to a complete stranger in exchange for a few jewels: a moment that still seems to me to be of relatively rare clumsiness and lack of insight for Wagner, almost not sufficiently developed in the relatively short scene in which Daland achieves this conversion.

So, to that issue in the pacing, then.  Jeffrey Tate was almost ceremoniously welcomed back into the opera house; and with good reason.  As the House’s Principal Guest Conductor during Solti’s reign, he has a notable pedigree.  The whole score was imbued with a dramatic, rhythmic propulsion of really exciting measure.  It was all the more remarkable to see such spareness of gesture giving rise to this terrifying tumult.  However, there is just this tricky issue of Senta’s Ballad (and the equivalent section of the overture), when the whole world slowed to a remarkable, stultifying, infuriating degree.  I can scarcely remember a time when I have more wanted to throw a rope over the front of the Amphitheatre slips, scale down to the Stalls, push to the front of row A, take the baton off the conductor and start in myself: picking up the pace and getting us back to the dramatic pulse.  It was a very curious approach indeed.  And yet, I can’t deny – indeed, have no itching to deny – the genuinely exciting thrust and power of the moments from Senta’s Ballad onwards.  The orchestra had been drilled with a dramatic bite which powered the performance to its conclusion.  The scene where the chorus of partying shipmates and their land-locked women do musical battle with a sinister chorus of the Dutchman’s crew was just mind-blowing.  Orchestra and chorus were on top form in pursuit of some of opera’s most gutsy music and drama.

The conclusion was shattering and, I suppose, that’s the way it should be: if it sagged very slightly in the middle, it was in no way akin to an unsuccessful soufflé.  This was a full-blooded Holländer, richly rewarding to the very last bite.  We were sent out into the night to go and chew over the details over a bottle of full-bodied red: just the sort of behaviour that opera should provoke in a group of friends.

One comment

  1. I beg to demur on the matter of the model boat which I found to be a very powerful evocation of the ambiguity around what was imagined and what was real. The scene at the end where she slowly collapses under the weight of holding it (all) felt like a complete breakdown in the face of unbearable loss… I do agree though that the very deliberate slowing up of the tempi felt bewildering and attention seeking (on the stage, not the conductor)… telling rather than letting it speak. Keep up such thought provoking reviews though!

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