Drug Pushing and People Trafficking in Fulham Opera’s Flying Dutchman

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Der fliegende Holländer (with a new reduced orchestration by Jonathan Finney): Soloists, chorus and musicians of Fulham Opera / Jonathan Finney (conductor). St John’s Church, Fulham, London, 5.12.2015. (JPr)

Fulham Opera’s Der fliegende Holländer
Keel Watson (Dutchman), John Milne (Daland) & Janet Fischer (Senta)
(c) Matthew Coughlan

Wagner – Der fliegende Holländer

Cast Principals:
The Dutchman – Keel Watson
Senta – Janet Fischer
Daland – John Milne
Erik – Edward Hughes
Mary – Mae Heydorn
Steersman – Tom Lowe

Director: Daisy Evans
Designer: Chris Beer
Lighting Designer: Jake Wiltshire
Chorus Master: Michael Thrift

I make no apologies for repeating myself endlessly about Fulham Opera and their founder Ben Woodward’s wonderful ‘let’s put on a show’ cooperative. Too many similar organisations have come and gone in ‘my time’ but I genuinely believe this group have their feet on the ground and know their limitations and will eschew grandiose plans by sticking with what they do best – especially since they have moved on from using only an unreliable piano to a small ensemble – in this case a very accomplished 13. Always look out for their performances because they involve singers who need to be heard and – although staging is not the appropriate word – the operas are ‘put on’ inventively often using all the available space of the St John’s Church which improves each year as an intimate performing venue.

After a very successful journey down the Rhine for the Ring, some wonderful Verdi followed with their Falstaff (review), then there was some Puccini earlier this year (review) and it was now time to return to Wagner with Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). To be honest the upward trajectory of Fulham Opera’s remarkable achievements in recent years was always likely to be unsustainable and for me this Dutchman didn’t quite work as well as some of their other efforts. Was it because I could only get to the last performance … or the fact I had been stuck on the tarmac in Turkey until very late the previous evening? I cannot be sure.

The enthusiastic new audiences Fulham Opera attract (with all the publicity they achieve on their meagre resources) included a number I overheard who were – hopefully initially only – fooled by the vagrants seated around the entrance and the ‘Refugee Processing Centre UHNCR’ signs on the doors. Wristbands were issued by yellow-jacketed volunteers and questionnaires about why we were ‘persecuted’ completed along with the offer of blankets – or chairs for the less able (like me). Words (some quaintly spelt) and slogans in English (Freedom, Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite) and Arabic were  seen on colourful wall murals from African born London-based artist Tendez. One can see how the Dutchman’s rootless crew damned to constantly sail the seas could be those people who have chosen to uproot themselves for whatever reason to seek refuge elsewhere, with everyone else representing those willing to exploit their plight (such as human traffickers). However, we are a little too close to the present problems to know whether the plight of all the refugees is genuine, self-inflicted or whether some might have other motives. I thought this concept shoehorned onto other ideas about the abhorrent physical abuse of women and drug addiction lacked focus. I accept that might just be my reaction and there were many positive comments heard from those around me about their immersion in the experience.

Jonathan Finney (who also conducted his own reduction of the score) wrote a programme note that began with Wagner declaring in his 1851 pamphlet Communication to my Friends how ‘the “Flying Dutchman” … gives emotionally compelling expression to…the longing for peace from the storms of life.” My major issue is that it was so relentlessly bleak and devoid of hope while Wagner’s aim with his heroine Senta was – as Finney also reminds us – ‘to portray what he saw as woman’s greatest destiny; the apotheosis of man, indeed the world, through a woman’s love.’ Not entirely PC in 2015 of course but at least Senta might have been portrayed as Angela Merkel who appears to be ‘earth mother’ to many of the refugees wanting to get to Germany.

The music had already started (a miscalculation) as the audience are made to stumble into the interior of the church like refugees landing on the shores of Lesbos. The designer, Chris Beer, provides a criss-cross of rigging with tattered sails and much dry ice creates a sea fog and we watched sitting higgledy-piggledy surrounding a central area where the singers were ‘in our faces’, often clambering through everyone to make entrances and exits or just lying on the floor. To one side was the small orchestra playing Jonathan Finney’s interesting arrangement of the music. Explaining what he was trying to achieve he considered it was virtually a lost cause to attempt to replicate Wagner’s soundworld given that his ‘mood of tension and excitement … cannot be reproduced even by the seven splendid string players that we have at our disposal at Fulham’. Yet that is precisely what he did achieve after a limp Overture during ‘Senta’s Ballad’ and the subsequent duet between Senta and her feckless lover, Erik, for instance. As a result, Wagnerian voices often had a warm Weber or Mozart-like accompaniment (with occasional interpolations) light on brass which didn’t always sound appropriate. Though I do not often support doing this there could have been some cuts (a bit like with the versions of Wagner operas for children at Bayreuth) to make it a shorter – and dramatically tighter – evening as there were some longueurs. If an interval was necessary, why – of why? – was it between Act II and III just as action had begun to ‘hot up’.

The Dutchman doesn’t have a ship and the always reliable Keel Watson drags on a huge holdall, his burden and his possible ransom, and offers Daland, Senta’s abusive father, what looked like dollars to buy his daughter. Meanwhile, Daland’s Steersman deals drugs and has a bag of pills which he forces on everyone for the Act III party. Senta and Mary in fluorescent tabards are in charge of processing refugees but so depressing is their work that they indulge in some of this chemical stimulation too. I wasn’t sure who Senta actually ‘was’ even though she is obviously trying to escape – occasionally literally – her father’s clutches and an emotionally needy boyfriend. There seems little connection between her and the Dutchman so much so that at the end – seemingly to spite him – she overdoses on pills as he looks on, dismayed and powerless to intervene. This is played out against the background of ‘Johohoe! Johohohoe!’ from the Dutchman’s ghostly crew, sung by the stoned partygoers (the very valiant small chorus). Senta’s death is an inevitability and – rather than drowning in the sea whilst redeeming the Dutchman – she dies on the floor amongst the detritus of beer cans and pills and the (apparently drowned?) bodies of those believed to be forcibly displaced.

These final moments were the best for me even though its ‘meaning’ was far removed from Wagner’s original. Overall the experience – as is typical with Fulham Opera – was second to none and this opinion was shared by many around me – comments included ‘Fantastic’, ‘An epic’, and ‘The intimacy and the volume is stupefying’. Musically I suspect matters were affected by the previous 5 performances and a certain tiredness had crept into the orchestral playing and all the voices. Tom Lowe is clearly a sturdy tenor but sang his drug-fuelled Act I ‘Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer’ as if it was a Puccini aria; John Milne was a gruff, angry and less-than-fatherly Daland; Mae Heydorn sang very well as a complicit Mary and I would very much like to hear her in a much larger role; Edward Hughes showed promise as the lovelorn Erik but perhaps wasn’t 100% and Janet Fischer fearsomely tackled Senta a part that might be a size too big for her at the moment.

Keel Watson deserves to be better known than he is and is always a wonderfully committed performer though I never suspected I would hear his denouement ‘Erfahre das Geschick, vor dem ich Dich bewahr!’ (Learn now the fate from which I save you!) sung so wonderfully. His bass-baritone voice intoned this enthrallingly and I cannot remember it better sung … anywhere! Elsewhere his rich and robust sound was rather darker than most Dutchmans and he too seemed a bit tired at times but he certainly made a trek to Fulham completely worth it.

Finally, one of the pleasures of Fulham Opera has been the translation often clearly projected behind the altar however the (two?) TV screens provided were awkwardly placed and obscured by the singers from time-to-time and required the onlookers to have some idea of what they were seeing if they were not to lose the plot.

Jim Pritchard

For more information about the Fulham Opera’s activities go to www.fulhamopera.com and to www.stjohnsfulham.org for details of other musical performances at the church. 

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