Thursday, 12 February 2015

Surf or turf?



Richard Wagner, Der Fliegende Holländer (Andris Nelsons cond. Orchestra of Royal Opera House)

Yesterday’s FT had an extraordinary headline: “Former IMF Chief too busy ‘saving world’ to attend many orgies’. I suspect DSK wouldn’t fare well as the Dutchman with the chance to woo only every seven years. But this is the Dutchman’s predicament. Bryn Terfel returns, not quite alive and not quite dead. A sort of nautical Nick Clegg, who seeks only to be put out of his misery. He couldn’t believe his luck in finding Senta. I couldn’t believe mine in a cheap last minute ticket for the stalls with a decent view. Nelsons must empathize with all the maritime roaming as he dashes across the Atlantic between Boston and Birmingham.
Senta is caught between the between the devil and the deep blue sea. Not quite literally, but almost. It is a choice between heading off with the Dutchman or handing him to be tormented by the devil. And a hellish choice it is too. Adrianne Pieczonka fills out this role wonderfully, and makes it her own.
Ed Lyon’s Steersman was deeply impressive. Bryn’s Dutchman was spooky, ghoulish and wonderful. 

Bryn is a superb singer, on good form in a role he does well. This was a great performance. Kaufmann’s towering voice three weeks ago filled that space in a gobsmacking way. it was only fully apparent now. It was worth the admission just for this.

The very first recording of an opera I purchased was Karajan’s Dutchman; other recordings have yet to supplant this well-paced spooky production from 1984 in my library. Anyone can get the overture right –(it is one of Wagner’s overtures which probably works on its own as part of an orchestral concert – however these things only whet the appetite in my mind). The third act is often the problem: look here to test a conductor’s mettle, the sense they make of it, it is here that you ought to look for coherence if nothing else. If, as this production does, it is the 1843 version, then it is to this you might look. And yet here it was that it unravelled a bit.

The original performance got a lukewarm response. Schumann loved it but reckoned the public weren’t ready, preferring ‘glittering processions, splendid scenery and groupings, and imposing action coupled with brilliant music’. The Andrea Chénier I saw last month probably fits into this category,  and no less a delight for it.  This evening got a slightly odd response – the whole thing seemed slightly out of control in the final scenes. Ed Lyon’s Steersman was vocally-electric, and did so much to set the scene at the start – his presence and voice matched the intensity of the overture. So why on earth was he thrashing about in the water at the front of the stage? It took away from the thrill of the appearance of the ghostly crew. Much of the sometime-modern production was clean, pared and provided the climate in which Wagner’s music-dramas generally go best in my modest experience.

It hasn’t been seven years since I last heard an orchestra under Nelson lift the Dutchman’s ship up to heaven. A concert performance with the CBSO was orchestrally more thrilling. The ascent then was unmistakable, transcendent. Tonight, the denouement seemed slightly off-kilter. It needed a smidge more rehearsal. Or maybe an interval. Or something. Overall, the singing was superb. The music was wonderful, textured and balanced –that Wagnerian trick of lots of musicians making very little noise oscillating to a lot of noise without being gimmicky. The production was generally good. The spinning scene was smashing: the a large bank of sewing machines came down with individual . With ropes, chains, pull switches for lights, there were a lot of fleeting connexions in the dark. But something wasn’t quite right. Erik was not as distraught as I expected. If he says “oh well” and heads off down the pub, the wretchedness of Senta’s position is undermined. The earlier score is considered to provide greater scope for a tragic ending. So this all played out a bit oddly.  Rather than leaping on the lowered gantry as might have been expected, Sentra grabbed, fell and then cradled the model boat. This made things more ambiguous, confusing the ending. Somehow it seemed she had resolved to save the Dutchman but it was not clear if she had succeeded. It may take a cinema relay to get my head around this. There are many Wagner strands here: leitmotifs, erotic(ish) love death(ish),
There was a lot to like in this production: the effects with overture elevated its expansive whole. 

Overall, great singing, very good music, but something was slightly unsettled in it at the end. 

Full cast
Conductor: Andris Nelsons
Orchestra: Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
The Dutchman: Bryn Terfel
Senta: Adrianne Pieczonka
Erik: Michael König
Daland: Peter Rose
Steersman: Ed Lyon
Mary: Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Chorus: Royal Opera Chorus
Director: Tim Albery
Set designs: Michael Levine

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