ENO’s Flying Dutchman – Fascinating and Stimulating

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Wagner: The Flying Dutchman:  Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera /Edward Gardner. London Coliseum, 28.4.2012 (CC)

Daland:   Clive Bayley
Senta:  Orla Boylan
Erik:  Stuart Skelton
Mary:  Susanna Tudor-Thomas
Steersman:  Robert Murray
The Dutchman:  James Cresswell

English National Opera’s stagings can utilize technology to an extraordinary degree. Indeed, it is something the company seems to delight in (think the recent Klinghoffer, or the divers of Pearl Fishers for example). This Dutchman is no exception. This is Jonathan Kent’s first Wagner production for ENO (he is a former artistic director of the Almeida Theatre, and previously, in 2005, produced Tippett’s A Child of our Time at the Coliseum).

Dream was Kent’s script here. After an impressive moonscape refracted through skylights, the storm that opens the opera was viscerally unleashed. Somehow, we arrive at the young Senta’s bedroom (a child enacts fantasies about the Dutchman), and with this unexpected feint we gain huge knowledge of the adult Senta’s obsession, and indeed, the reasons for her actions later in the piece. The Dutchman came to Senta in a dream, and as we see reality and dream merge, our sense of orientation blurs.  The production also included some typically ENO-ish outrageousness, a “party” scene in which there was an implied gang-rape on Senta (a scene that viscerally brought back memories of Calixto Bieito’s staging of Don Giovanni, also seen here at ENO: see my review of a 2004 performance).  A toy palm tree flaunts its phallic associations blatantly and animalistic passions are rife, mirroring the bestial aspect of the Dutchman (against the infinitely more human Erik, perhaps).

The girls in the second act (which, of course, felt more like the second scene in this all-in-one context) instead of spinning, worked in a factory specialising in ships in bottles (if you’re not at sea, you’re thinking about being at sea in this production).  Of all opera composers, it is Wagner who seems to be fairest game and while this production is certainly thought-provoking, although as time went on in the day or so between performance and the writing of this review, the suspicion that it was all a little flimsy, all a little superficial, crept in. Productions need to be illuminating and lasting, and despite its technical, as well as technological, sophistication, I wonder whether this one will be too lasting. There are rich intellectual challenges here, and the disturbing nature of the goings on ensure this will never be an easy ride.

It is important to note also that there is no interval in this production – Wagner composing-through prematurely perhaps but also an unrelenting exploration of the relationships between the characters.

This was an auspicious Wagner debut for Edward Gardner. There is a tremendous tradition here on St Martin’s Lane, thanks to the late and great Sir Reginald Goodall, who brought the orchestra to new heights, as the EMI discs attest (I also heard his Tristan at ENO, a remarkable occasion). Rightly, Gardner has eschewed beginning with one of the later music-dramas. Dutchman itself begins with one of the great orchestral storms, and Gardner whipped up the orchestra in no uncertain terms, his conducting itself full of energy – the opening of Verdi’s Otello was surely referenced (perhaps too much for some). The opening chorus was all one would expect from ENO’s great ensemble, lusty and large as life.

In keeping with the idea of the work as one single span, Gardner kept the piece moving. Yet he was able to give the music space within this, as with the masterly orchestral preparation for “The time is up” (“Die Frist ist um”). James Cresswell’s superbly focused bass made this one of the night’s highlights. In fact, it was an evening for male singing. Clive Bayley sang the best I have heard him as Daland, while Stuart Skelton, an established Wagnerian tenor, absolutely made the role of Erik his own. Dressed as a security guard for the factory, his expressive vocal vehicle held the stage perfectly. Fervent, lyrical and strong, he was one of the stars of the evening.

Orla Boylan had a tentative start on this first night, and although things got better, she still did not evince the confidence fully required for “Traft ihr das Schiff im Meere an”. Intimations of an abusive relationship between Erik and Senta were but another controversial slant thrown in for good measure, fitting perfectly with the debauched, amoral world that Kent set up but possibly less so with what Wagner actually had in mind. Someone needs to tell Kent that less is more. Susanna Tudor-Thomas’ Mary was wobbly and disappointing; Robert Murray made a fine fist of The Steersman.

Certainly no-one can ever accuse ENO of being dull when it comes to their productions. That the orchestra and chorus were pretty much on top of their game only reinforces the sense of excitement. A fascinating, stimulating evening.

Colin Clarke