Dutchman Causes a Stir in Rural Dorset

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Der Fliegende Holländer: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Dorset Opera / Jeremy Carnall (conductor). Coade Theatre, Bryanston School, Blandford Forum, 25.7.2013. (RJ)

The Dutchman: Mark S Doss
Daland: Richard Wiegold
Senta: Lee Bisset
Erik: John Hudson
Mary: Clare Shearer
Steuermann: Tyler Clark

Director: Paul Carr
Chorus Director: Nicolas Mansfield
Orchestra Leader: Robert Gibbs
Set Designer: Steve Howell
Costume Designer: Rebecca Hopkins
Lighting Designer: Bas Berenson

The organisers of summer opera festivals seem to choose the most sumptous backdrops for their activities, and the parkland of Bryanston School in Dorset is surely second to none. It is here that Dorset Opera organises a two week intensive summer school for singers and stage technicians culminating in opera performances which feature professional singers and musicians. The result is a large enthusiastic chorus trained to a professional standard which give the operas an extra uplift.

Dorset Opera has now reached middle age, having started in 1974 with The Bartered Bride, but THE organisation shows no signs of declining energy. After performing a great deal of Verdi over the years, they were well placed to celebrate his bicentenary with a new production of La Traviata by Jonathan Miller. This is the first time that they have tackled Verdi’s twin, Wagner, however, so why the the long wait? I suppose the problem is that many of his (later) operas are long and therefore not ideal fare for balmy summer evenings, as this was; also they do not have much of a role for a chorus, if any. But before Wagner became a revolutionary (in both music and politics), he wrote operas in the traditional manner with arias, choruses etc – sounding rather like Verdi, in fact – and if you like passion and high drama, Der FliegendeHolländer is a good choice.

There is some excellent orchestral music in this opera, not least the tense, atmospheric overture. One of the advantages of the Coade Theatre is that the orchestra is not hidden away, but in full view of the audience, and they were able to see the energetic and inspiring Jeremy Carnall (from St Gallen Opera) squeeze every nuance out of the score urging his orchestra on to greater heights. He was well supported by his musicians who had clearly been subjected to the same type of intensive regime as the members of the chorus.

The set left a lot to the imagination – not a piece of rigging or a sail in sight, nor even a cliff for Senta to jump from! – but the choruses played a crucial role in creating both a sense of place and atmosphere, as for instance when the men’s chorus formed themselves into a ship’s prow. Though we never so much as glimpsed the Dutchman’s ghost ship, the chorus’s reactions to it made it seem all the more fearful. After the very masculine atmosphere of life aboard ship in stormy and calm weather the change to the world of women – a sort of textile factory presided over by the matronly Clare Shearer – could not have been greater with the delightful spinning wheel song representing order in contrast to the unbridled natural forces of the first act.

Of the seafarers a bearded Richard Wiegold as Daland looked every bit a sea captain with a commanding voice and an eye for a good business deal even if it could be to the detriment to his kith and kin. His acting, though, was a trifle wooden, but captains are like that in real life, aren’t they? I rather warmed to Tyler Clarke as the steersman, who is a bit of a joker and always urging his colleagues on to have a good time. A very fine tenor, his charming aria in Act 1 in which he dreams of his girl-friend back on land came as welcome relief after the excitement of the preceding storm.

Lee Bisset who has been singing various roles in the three Ring Cycles at Longborough this summer was the most Wagnerian of all the singers in this production. She brought more than a touch of Brünnhilde to the role of Senta, the dreamer who has been fascinated since childhood by the legend of the wandering Dutchman cursed by the devil. She recounts the story with great sympathy and eloquence to her fellow seamstresses pronouncing herself ready to ready to redeem him. It is at this point that the Brünnhilde aspect of her character is revealed.

A complication presents itself then when her admirer/lover Erik appears with a bunch of flowers. John Hudson looked the part of this stolid-looking huntsman who is loyal and true . The trouble is he is not the type to sweep a girl off her feet …… until he started to sing, when Hudson’s glorious tenor voice brought a dose of Italian passion to the proceedings.

The distinguished American bass-baritone Mark S Doss played the Dutchman and right from the beginning established himself as someone apart from the rest of humanity …. a man of mystery forced to wander the seas because of the devil’s curse and whose attempts to end his life all end in failure. Despite Daland’s offer of hospitality – and the hand of his daughter – he remains suspicious; fate has dealt him so many blows in the past. Doss possesses a great voice and stage presence and his encounters with Lee Bisset (who also possesses these attributes in abundance) made for an enthralling operatic experience. I hope we hear more of him over here …. and Ms Bisset, too.

It is impossible to find a bad word to say about Paul Carr’s production: a stellar cast of singers, well choreographed choruses who act naturally and sing with fervour at times, highly committed musicians and a conductor who kept up the excitement and tension right to the end. One expects performance of this stature in major opera houses of the world – not in rural Dorset – so I confidently predict full houses again for next year’s Festival when they present Fidelio and Aïda.

Roger Jones