Royal Opera Captures Ocean-Swept Primal Core of Wagner’s Dutchman

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer Cast, Chorus & Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Andres Nelsons. Live simulcast at Vue Cinema, Stratford Westfield, 24.02.2015 (CC)

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



Ever since watching a simulcast Parsifal from Covent Garden at a cinema on London’s Haymarket that was full of (extensive) dropouts, and a Levine Così from the Met at the Barbican, which still suffered from this blight but only occasionally, I have been wary of this form of enjoying opera – particularly in Wagner, where continuity is all; and especially here, in a Holländer performed as originally intended, without interval. There was nothing to worry about, it turned out: not a single interruption to the sound (which was good stereo in the Vue Cinema in Stratford Westfield, rather than surround sound).
This was the second revival of Tim Albery’s dark production of Holländer (first seen in 2009 and with revival director in this instance Daniel Dooner). David Levine’s set design is of a ship’s prow, moodily and evocatively lit by David Finn. The curve of the set implies almost a wave shape; disturbances to the curtain during the Overture imply wind and rain. A model ship is an oft-encountered prop, and at the opera’s close Senta is left alone with this model (instead of Wagner’s more final indication). It makes for a strange, thought-provoking close, but carries at least some meaning given her ongoing obsession with the model throughout the course of the evening. But it is the way that the production captures the essence of the ocean-swept primal core of the drama that impresses. Near-empty stages and low lighting place the focus squarely on the protagonists and their emotions. Terfel enters pulling a rope, as if he has been pulling it for all eternity and is resigned to do so forever. He looks devastated, and his voice mirrors this.
Senta and her girls are seen on what looks like a 1950’s sewing production line. The female chorus was in just as fine form as their male counterparts. The glory of the evening, and deserving of praise before we even get to the vocalists, was the Covent Garden Orchestra, in resplendent form under Andris Nelsons. The Riga connection is not lost on the commentary we were treated to (it was on a stormy sailing from Riga to London that Wagner claimed to have been inspired to write his sailor’s chorus). Nelsons’ ear for sonority and clarity of line and counterpoint is remarkable, and it was as if the Royal Opera House Orchestra were as one with him. Shapings of phrases were miraculously melded, while the invocations of adverse weathers were positively visceral. His tempi are not the quickest, which is a good thing. The whole (and it was a cogent whole) unfolded naturally and with no sense of rush.
As the Dutchman, Terfel is peerless. His command of the stage is legendary, and here it is seen in all its glory, right from the fist line of “Die Frist ist um”; the orchestra’s turbulence at the opening of the second section, “Wie oft in Meeres tiefsten Schlund” was remarkable, as was Terfel’s majestic response. Throughout, Terfel is absolutely believable, a ghostly Dutchman who is all too human, his pleas to Senta later in the opera absolutely gripping, his first act scene with Daland remarkable in its dramatic intensity.
Senta herself, Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, was in fine voice, delivering a tremendously heartfelt Ballad (“Jojojoe1 Traft ihr das Schiff in Meere an”) and absolutely Terfel’s equal in their potently intimate scenes. But even at this level of excellence, she was nearly upstaged by her Mary, the well-loved Catherine Wyn-Rogers, perfectly cast and in ringing, confident voice throughout.
Daland, looking something like a pub landlord in his purple suit and green tie at one point, was sung by Peter Rose. An announcement in front of the curtain prior to the performance informed us that he was suffering from a seasonal cold, and indeed there was perhaps some loss of depth to his voice, but this remained a good if not eminent reading nonetheless, able to hold his own with Terfel. The Erik, Michael König, was perhaps less impressive. A stronger voice would have completed a fine cast (and, conversely, a less fine cast would not have quite underlined König’s relative weakness).
Good to have a Steersman who is up there with the rest of the cast (Ed Lyon). All in all this was a triumph of an evening, thanks primarily to Nelsons’ strongly intelligent conducting. A privilege to hear Terfel and Pieczonka at the height of their powers, too.

Colin Clarke