Bryn Terfel on Top Form in Wagner’s Flying Dutchman

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, The Flying Dutchman (Der fliegende Holländer): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Zurich Opera House / Alain Altinoglu (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 15.12.2012. (JPr)

Bryn Terfel 2006
Bryn Terfel 2006

I am beginning to get peeved by the inadequacy of some printed concert programmes to tell a modern audience what they actually might need to know – to appreciate anything they are hearing a little better. The previous evening, there was nothing written about what version of a Bruckner symphony was being performed. Then nothing was written about which of the various performance forms of Wagner’s 1843 opera we would be listening to. Why is this apparently such a problem? Routinely now Der fliegende Holländer is given without an interval, so in a concert performance there is no excuse – apart from the need to increase the takings at the refreshment outlets. Unfortunately, a reprise of some music from the end of Act I for the beginning of the second act allowed the Royal Festival Hall to halt the proceedings for an unrequired ‘comfort break’. Wagner himself knew that intervals would halt the work’s dramatic impulse and his wishes should be adhered to.

At least Zurich Opera – fresh from premièring a new production of this work (see review) – brought us the original overture and the bleak ending lacking any redemption for the Dutchman in the arms of Senta. The orchestra was the Philharmonia Zurich which seemed a little short of numbers in certain sections and never really created any genuine excitement until something of a tempestuous close. We never really experienced the howling winds or rolling and tossing of stormy seas that Wagner demands. I know Wagner originally planned Der fliegende Holländer for Paris, and the conductor, Alain Altinoglu, was born there, but there was too much sang-froid in his account. Generally what atmosphere there was came from the artists singing from memory in this concert performance, given no doubt some hints of the drama of their Zurich staging. Again their good work was hampered by a brightly lit platform and the formal concert attire everyone was wearing.

It was Bryn Terfel and the veteran Matti Salminen who raised everything from the routine. Terfel’s Dutchman was for me the best Wagner I have heard from him. He knows – and so should my readers – that I first auditioned him when he was first doing the rounds and have followed what he has done in the intervening years. I heard his Wotan recently at Covent Garden and sadly most of that part does not lie anything near so well for his voice as the Dutchman does. From his first words (‘Die Frist ist um’) to his last, he was simply outstanding. He sang with a rare beauty and open-throated vibrancy and throughout was dramatically convincing. Especially amazing was his pianissimo singing with those inimical colours that his voice can create. Although to this I must direct the mildest of criticisms because occasionally some phrases sounded as if he were beginning a Welsh hymn rather than part of a Wagner score.

It was wonderful to hear Matti Salminen in London again. His worn and grizzled Daland had many similarities to any current performance by the equally great Wagnerian, Sir John Tomlinson. His still powerful voice may have gained a bit of grit with the passing years but the use of words was impeccable. I look forward to hearing him sing Hagen in Berlin in March. Dramatically, he was by turns slyly avaricious or fleetingly paternal.

When Salminen and Terfel were singing together negotiating over the price of Daland’s daughter’s hand in marriage I was riveted, despite the underpowered orchestra. By way of a detour here, Wagner 200 devised by Barry Millington and others will probably feature a number of lectures on Wagner’s perceived anti-Semitism – and probably too little on his attitude to women! Misogyny is much more in evidence than anti-Semitism in Wagner’s operas, as here with the treatment of Senta and all the references to women’s ‘sacred duties’. Regardless we can still love him; he was – as I have always maintained – of his time and we cannot judge him with twenty-first century sensibilities. End of subject.

After that unnecessary interval, Mary (sensuous and Carmen-like from Liliana Nikiteanu), Senta (Anja Kampe) and the small female chorus (as the spinning girls) launched the distaff side of the story. When Kampe sang her ‘Ballad’ relatively fearlessly all seemed well; it sounded rather dark but was unstinting and compelling. I began to think I might be writing how finally London audiences were getting to hear some Wagner properly sung. Then unfortunately during the subsequent love duet an unresolved fragility was revealed at the top of her voice that blighted her highest notes for the rest of the performance. Not even a cough or a sip of water resolved the matter and I think she knew it was not good enough. Sadly some critics will ignore this, but it has to be addressed. That darkness suggests her voice may now be drifting from lyric dramatic soprano territory to high mezzo. In the surtitles the Dutchman sings ‘What a sweet sound in a murky tumult’ and sadly this summed up Anja Kampe’s current, but hopefully temporary, vocal health.

Martin Homrich as her hapless suitor Erik was a late replacement for the previously announced Marco Jentzsch. When he sang tenderly it was quite affecting but when angry he tended to oversing and so shout too much. Much better was Fabio Trümpy’s plaintive Steersman. The Zurich Opera House Chorus matched the sound from the orchestra by being rather small-scale, particularly the 20 ‘ghostly’ men singing from one side of the platform who were far from frightening, matching the faint and thin sounds from the off-stage wind machine. At this point however the music cannot fail – indeed it would be very difficult to make this anything less than compelling, as Wagner’s denouement with everyone joining in is so unrelentingly tragic in his original version. Many rose to their feet at the end, so even if only for Bryn Terfel’s incomparable Dutchman this performance deserved this standing ovation.

Jim Pritchard

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