Fine Acting, but Covent Garden’s Dutchman Fails to Set Sail

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Der fliegende Holländer: Soloists and Chorus of Royal Opera, Jeffrey Tate (Conductor), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 18.10.2011. (JPr)

Egils Siliņš as the Dutchman (c) Mike Hoban/ROH

Perhaps the printed programme for this revival is not the best indicator, but taken in context with other recent debates the long overdue fight back about ‘outing’ Wagner’s operas as anti-Semitic has begun. I deliberately – and always have done – separated the man from his music and as the bicentenary of his birth approaches so do many others it seems.

First around the time of the recent Glyndebourne Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg there has been an attempt to reclaim Beckmesser as the Eduard Hanslick caricature he undoubtedly is; he was one of Wagner’s most fearsome critics. Also it should be remembered that the image of King David, the patron saint of song that is so venerated by the Mastersingers – recalls the historical figure who was a Jew. Audiences should remember this when they see the forthcoming Covent Garden revival. Those watching Holländer are reminded in Sarah Lenton’s very interesting essay ‘Sighting The Flying Dutchman’ that the Dutch captain is a distant relation of the Wandering Jew and Wagner actually calls him the ‘Ahasuerus of the sea’, one of this Jewish character’s alternative names. Wagner was this wanderer himself when he composed the opera. As Lenton reveals he was ‘exiled from Germany, poor, unknown, living from debt to debt in Paris’. She reminds us about the semi-autobiographical nature of this opera as the composer longed for redemption from ‘woman who would love and serve him’ and was not his wife, Minna!

Is it inconceivable that two pivotal Jewish characters – one seen and one basically unseen (and one of which Wagner clearly identified with) in two operas separated by decades – could be part of a musical output so riddled with the anti-Semitism that some would have us believe. Of course his prose writings reveal something different but I have always believed these should be understood through the contexts of the time in which they were written.

Anyway this is nothing that can be settled here and it is nothing that Tim Albery addresses in Wagner’s single act and three scenes version of Der fliegende Hollander that the composer used to promote the opera as a ‘proto-music drama’. This impact is diluted here by removing the ‘Redemption theme’ Wagner added later and opts for the original Dresden ending to the Overture and the opera itself. The D major chords make a rather perfunctory conclusion to a staging that is a rather bleak and charmless affair but was surprisingly well-received in 2009 and achieved an Olivier Award nomination. There is a tormented Dutchman dragging a huge rope around like Jacob Marley encumbered by the chains he forged by his life’s misdeeds in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. He is cursed to sail the seas until he finds a woman who will be ‘faithful unto death’. Senta is obsessed with the story of the Flying Dutchman and rejects Erik who is in love with her and is willing to sacrifice herself for him. Her Rocco-like father, Daland, is just interested in the prospects of becoming rich by making the match.

The opera begins rather poorly as the Overture is played against a rippling grey curtain (which was the predominant colour of the evening) and I believe water was falling during the opening moments though this was not clear from where I sat in the stalls and I could not also see the water that is obviously on stage. There is a huge stage-wide curved keel of ship like the Titanic on the ocean floor, an anchor rope, a later hint of some portholes, some searchlights and a huge ladder for the Steersman and that is it at the start. All is very gloomily lit by David Finn but strangely the lighting improves before a shadow crosses the stage for the arrival of the Dutchman’s ship.

We have already seen Senta cradling a model three-masted ship before the sewing machines of a clothing factory descend. That it is a near contemporary setting is revealed as the women later strip off their overalls and rush off to greet the sailors’ return dressed like those seen out for a Friday night in Basildon, Essex. When Senta and the Dutchman are left alone they barely have any contact and Tim Albery leaves them mostly apart with their own conflicting emotions. For the final scene part of the initial set lifts for the party and the appearance of the ghostly crew – all dressed like the Dutchman. A gangway descends stage-right and in perhaps the best moment of the entire evening a desperate Senta is left hanging from the end of it for a few moments before being left behind as the Dutchman departs.

Making his Royal Opera debut as the Dutchman was the Latvian bass-baritone, Egils Silins, his voice sounded a little small during ‘Die Frist ist um’ but he was more at ease and impassioned as the evening proceeded giving a compelling, often interiorised, performance as the sea captain desperate to be saved from his tortured purgatory. Another artist exploring the role from inside out was Anja Kampe returning as Senta who vividly depicted someone whose sanity hangs by a thread. Her singing has a mature sound lacking the fearsome attack her otherwise well-controlled Ballad possibly demanded and this is shown up elsewhere where the role’s high tessitura challenges her resources somewhat though she seldom made an ugly sound. I raised an eyebrow when I saw Endrik Wottrich cast as the distraught Erik but his first encounter with Senta defied my expectations and he sang this exceptionally well. However, on his return at the end of the opera he seemed to have lost all his earlier vocal ease and one particular passage was extremely painful to the ear.

Supporting these principal singers were Stephen Milling’s bluff Daland, who truth-be-told was a bit bland. Clare Shearer made the best she could of the small and rather thankless role of Mary. The best voice of the entire evening was John Tessier revealing a winning lyricism in returning as the Steersman.

There was an ease and naturalness to the acting throughout the evening that Tim Albery was able to instil in his cast from his theatre experience and this was especially evident in the enhanced chorus that had an individuality and commitment I’ve rarely seen outside Bayreuth. They also sang exceptionally well and, for me, were the stars of the evening. Elsewhere everything seemed in need of more rehearsal: perhaps matters were affected by the earlier withdrawal of Falk Struckmann from the role of the Dutchman. Ensemble between pit and stage came and went and the orchestra sounded a little routine and lethargic under Jeffrey Tate’s equally languid baton. I am sure things will improve as this run of performances continues.

Jim Pritchard