Bryn Terfel in ROH Production of Der fliegende Holländer

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Wagner, Der fliegende Holländer: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of The Royal Opera, Andris Nelsons (conductor), Covent Garden, London 5.2.2015 (JPr)

Bryn Terfel as The Dutchman © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL

The Dutchman: Bryn Terfel
Senta: Adrianne Pieczonka
Erik: Michael König
Daland: Peter Rose
Steersman: Ed Lyon
Mary: Catherine Wyn-Rogers  

Director: Tim Albery
Set designs: Michael Levine
Costume designs: Constance Hoffman
Lighting design: David Finn
Movement: Philippe Giraudeau
Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra
Conductor: Andris Nelsons

A typically informative programme for this second revival of Tim Albery’s Olivier Award-nominated 2009 production had an essay by Barry Millington entitled Igniting the Creative Spark and one of his suggestions as to how Wagner came to choose his subject for an opera was: ‘Living in squalid lodgings in Paris, Wagner and his wife [Minna] are forced to pawn wedding presents and other silver items to buy food. Uprooted from hearth and home, persecuted by creditors, unfulfilled in love. Wagner identifies himself with the mythical wanderer, the Flying Dutchman.’ In another contribution the suffering of the Dutchman is identified by Christopher Wintle (From Kernel to Crucible) as that of ‘Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew … also a testament to the privations of a deracinated artist – pre-eminently Wagner.’ Sarah Lenton in Sighting the Flying Dutchman informs the reader that for Wagner – despite her sacrifices – Minna ‘wasn’t the soulmate he craved. He fantasised about a woman who would love and serve him, and he created her [Senta] for his Dutchman.’ Wagner craved a woman’s unconditional faith and self-sacrifice for both him and his mission and eventually found such a person in Cosima, his second wife.

So, as most of the contributors explained, Der fliegende Holländer is a very autobiographical early work from Wagner, though we read much less about the actual score we were hearing. The autograph score of 1841 is, I believe, held in the national archive at Bayreuth’s Richard Wagner Foundation. The earliest versions of the opera had just one act with three scenes and the setting was the coast of Scotland. It underwent many changes by the time it was first performed in Dresden in 1843 and these included dividing the opera into three acts, transferring the setting to Norway and changing the names Donald and George to Daland and Erik. Senta’s ballad was also transposed from the original key of A minor to G minor, which called for a change in instrumentation. Barry Millington emphasises how ‘The work underwent further modifications throughout Wagner’s career’ and despite a Redemption theme having been added in 1860 ‘in the wake of Tristan und Isolde … The original “Dresden” ending, however, consisting simply of emphatic D major chords, is occasionally adopted, as in the present performance. The less consoling nature of the “Dresden” ending is perhaps better attuned to readings that stress the tragic aspect of the drama.’

Bleak Tim Albery’s version of Der fliegende Holländer certainly is. Indeed, as Senta (instead of throwing herself into the water at the end at the end of the opera and subsequently reappearing with the Dutchman in a Death-and-Transfiguration denouement) merely drops down clutching the model three-masted schooner that was ever-present at the front of the stage for most of the opera … it nevertheless seemed absolutely right. Her death is as much from a broken mind as from a broken heart. Her desire to be loved and redeem the Dutchman by her love is nothing but a futile dream and becomes her own curse … just as – in his own way – the Dutchman is cursed.

I saw this production when it was first staged in 2009 and it did not work as well as it did last night. The Overture is played against a frontcloth that billows like a sail in choppy seas and from behind lights – as if from a lighthouse – shine through it. We also, quite appropriately, hear the faint trickling of some water that will be seen at the front edge of the stage. Michael Levine’s basic set is revealed as the concave upturned hull of a modern ship – and that is basically it for the two hour and twenty-minute span of the performance. There are just some long ropes and a stage-deep ladder at the back in the first ‘scene’; in the second ‘scene’ there four rows of benches with sewing machines for the girls in the ‘clothing factory’ and a couple of chairs and a lamp hanging down for when Senta and the Dutchman are left alone; and near the end part of the ‘hull’ lifts up to allow space for the sailors’ party and appearance of the ghostly crew. Finally, the Dutchman exits up a gangplank. That just about sums up this most anti-romantic – yet compelling – of stagings that was aided by some very atmospheric lighting from David Finn; the arrival of the Dutchman’s ship by a dark shadow that crosses the stage is particularly stunning. It was by far the best Wagner seen recently at Covent Garden and my usual mantra of how British audiences (and some critics) do not appear to know what Wagner should sound like cannot apply here … because this is how it should be performed, played and sung. Do go if you can to see it in the opera house, or if not, watch it when it is transmitted live to cinemas on Tuesday 24th February.

It was Bryn Terfel and Peter Rose who set the standard for this superb performance. Terfel’s Dutchman was for me the best Wagner I have heard from him and even better than his concert performance in 2012 for Zurich Opera at the Royal Festival Hall. His voice sounded rested compared to other performances of his I have heard in recent years and from his first words (‘Die Frist ist um’) to his last, he was simply outstanding. (I have used some of these words before but I cannot think of how to describe him much differently.) Terfel sings this role with a rare beauty and open-throated vibrancy … especially amazing was his pianissimo singing with those inimical colours that his voice can create. He was dramatically convincing from his first slow trudge onto the stage dragging on a mooring rope – as if it was the fetters Marley’s ghost from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol says he has ‘forged in life’ – right through to his anger and resentment at Senta’s seeming betrayal at the end.

Almost his equal in every way was Peter Rose’s grizzled old Captain Bird’s-Eye-style seadog. Powerfully sung, his Daland was by turns overtly avaricious or fleetingly paternal. When Rose and Terfel were singing together negotiating over the price of Daland’s daughter’s hand in marriage I was riveted. I could not fault the casting in any of the roles; Ed Lyon was a bright sounding Steersman and Catherine Wyn-Rogers was in sumptuous voice as the fussy, albeit maternal and sympathetic, Mary. Michael König was Senta’s hapless suitor, Erik, and sang a role which has defeated some of the best of heroic tenors securely, plangently, and with ringing top notes. Completing a fine cast was his Canadian compatriot, Adrianne Pieczonka, as Senta. She was not as blazingly fearless as some I have heard but her restrained singing seemed to fit perfectly with the production and it was an intense interpretation and she seemed so utterly possessed by the music and the character that moments such as when she was being manhandled by the Dutchman’s crew made for uncomfortable viewing.

In conclusion, I must first praise the work of the Royal Opera Chorus, and if they (the men especially) has done anything better on the Covent Garden stage then I would like to have been there. All-round I am not certain I have heard a better Der fliegende Holländer even at Bayreuth and Andris Nelsons was the equal of Christian Thielemann, who has conducted it there, with his perfect accompaniment to the stark drama of Tim Albery’s staging and the wonderful singing. With the full support of the orchestra playing at their very best, Nelsons was aware of all the intricacies of Wagner’s score; stormy and muscular where necessary, yet with nuance and lyricism elsewhere, revealing all the true romantic sweep and dramatic drive necessary to make the work sail ahead and not become becalmed.

Jim Pritchard

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