mon 15/07/2024

The Flying Dutchman, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

The Flying Dutchman, English National Opera

The Flying Dutchman, English National Opera

An obsessive and redemptive new Dutchman from Jonathan Kent

Senta (Aoife Checkland) as a young girl takes solace from her book of tales about the flying DutchmanRobert Workman

Obsession and redemption, the twin themes of Wagner's ghostly earliest masterpiece, are two words that could just as pertinently be applied to Jonathan Kent's new production for English National Opera. Obsession is how many non-diehard Wagner opera-goers will view Kent's decision to stage this opera as a continuous pieceit' of drama with no interval. Sure, Wagner originally considered a single-act work, but he quickly dropped the idea.

He never conducted or endorsed a staging without a break. So, the fashion for running all three acts together almost feels like obsession in its unwillingness to forgo, for once, the usual Wagnerian operatic leitmotif of having to sit still for a very long time. 

However, thankfully, last night there was also redemption, because after 30 seconds of the overture it was clear that, despite the prospect of over two hours in our seats, this wasn't going to be a clock-watching endurance challenge of an evening. In fact, quite the opposite.

Kent's production sets the action in a loosely modern setting, Daland's ship a massive cargo vessel, all corrugated metal and rusting pipes. At the centre of this harsh adult sea environment is an Ikea-like bed bedecked with a childish pink duvet, in which Senta the child (Aoife Checkland), repeatedly fobbed off by her father, takes solace from her book of tales about the flying Dutchman, feeding the obsession that will eventually kill her. However, just as you've got your historical bearings, in crashes the Dutchman's tall-masted sailing ship, rigging and all, whilst American bass James Creswell's Dutchman rises up into Senta's (now empty) bed, complete with Victorian side-burns and tailcoats, and a good century and a half's worth of bitterness on his face. Suddenly, this feels like a serious ghost story.

Watch the trailer for the ENO's production of The Flying Dutchman

Meanwhile, the singers match superb vocal performances with such convincing acting that the production also feels like a proper drama, rather than like a bunch of opera singers walking through their stage directions. Cresswell, and Orla Boylan as Senta (pictured above), are an electric pairing, and individually captivating. The subdued power in Cresswell's tone as he utters his opening, “The time is up”, is spine-chilling, and its later full-throttled eruption fulfils all the initial promise.

Orla Boylan sings a glorious, clear-voiced Senta, by turns ecstatically pure and almost gratingly piercing as the drama requires. She has absolute mastery over her taxing vocal lines and high notes. Her characterisation of this vulnerable, disconnected, bewitched woman come together in her tension-riven Ballade, its surface calm barely keeping at bay the schizophrenic jostle beneath between aggression and tenderness. Stuart Skelton lends dignity to the impotent Erik by the sheer poised beauty of his performance, Robert Murray's aria as the Steersman is true-voiced and tender, and the gentlemen of the ENO chorus (pictured below) have never sounded so good or lifted the roof so high.

The real star of the night, though, was musical director Edward Gardner. This was his first Wagner opera as conductor, and he absolutely smashed it. An edge-of-the-seat orchestral adventure ride from the first note, with tempi on the faster side of the spectrum, Gardner's interpretation crackled and smouldered with devilish fire through the many gear-changes in mood and pace. Such was the orchestra's dramatic power that there was a sense of the instrumentalists in the pit being not just the accompaniment, but also narrator and Greek chorus all rolled into one.

It wasn't all perfect. Early on, there were a few balance issues between orchestra and soloists. Later, the Act Three trio between Erik, Senta and the Dutchman felt strangely static and awkward. Even more awkward was the segue between Acts Two and Three, which saw Senta engaged in a bizarre slow dance with a hitherto unintroduced member of the Dutchman's crew. Still, these are small gripes. This is one to grab a ticket for.

  • The Flying Dutchman at the London Coliseum until 23 May


I suspect this reviewer has not heard many performances of this opera? Am I right? The same set from 'Sweeney Todd' and 'borrowings' from other 'Dutchman'/Wagner etc. productions down the years ... 'Senta's Dream' is not original and the wild revels at the end were a version of something directed by David McVIcar. The music and singing was mostly that of 'Dutchman' as if it was a lost Verdi opera ... a 'numbers' rum-ti-tum piece devoid of much that is Wagner. This summer I will need Thielemann at Bayreuth to erase the memory of this. It will be all be praised because most people in the UK have forgotten what Wagner should sound like ... I suspect the staging and singing would get a much less favourable reception across the rest of Europe who still know their Wagner. The cheap seats at the Coliseum were not soldout and I wonder what the audience will be like for the rest of the run - the ENO seems to have lost its core audience of regulars and must now rely on good word of mouth (such as this tries to do) for its box office receipts.

No-one with respect for Wagner or knowledge of the performance history of his music would claim, as Joseph Alder does, to know "what Wagner should sound like".

I went to see the Flying Dutchman last night and this review perfectly describes the outstanding evening of opera I experienced.

Joseph Alder has a very jaundiced view of this production. Most of the cheap seats were sold - those that weren't probably should never be sold as the view of the stage is so poor. How often is the Dutchman performed in this country? The last time I saw it was more than 40 years ago - at the Coliseum - so I am not qualified to compare it with European productions. I do agree that at times it sounded Verdian -but this is early Wagner, not the Ring Cycle. The production was an interesting take on the opera - in places insightful and at others it didn't quite work. No opera production is perfect and for the many of us who rarely get a chance to see The Dutchman this was as good as we could expect.

It seems as if I saw a different performance from the reviewer> Orla Boylan was the worst Senta I have heard, out of 7 or 8, insecure, harsh, and screeching, especially in the last Act, when my neighbour said that she looked like a Susan Boyle on drugs! The Dutchman was well sung, but without emotion. Erik and Daland were good, Mary was pretty awful. The production was too 'clever', why change centuries in the second Act? The party in the third Act was silly, there is no way that Senta, as the boss's daughter, would would be attacked by his crew. All the emotion of the ending was lost, stabbing yourself with a broken bottle, dear me. people near me shouted rubbish when the producer! appeared. I also though the tempi were too fast, and the beauty of the music was lost. Compare the recent Dutchman at Covent Garden. We met some members of the orchestra on the way out who asked us whether we enjoyed it. When we said no, they said they were not surprised. I have seen 8 or so Dutchmen in the last 40 years, and they have all been played without a break. Finally, the programme said that it was a storm that led the crew to run away after the party in Act 3, and made no reference to the awakening of the Dutchman's crew, which is integral to the plot. Pretty basic.

I'm amazed at this negative review for Orla Boylan. Screechy? No way! Insecure? Very much so, it's in the part and brilliantly carried off here. Daland is obviously only interested in the price he can get from his daughter, a neglectful, absent father. This was well demonstrated. I thought the party and the assault as much in Senta's imagination and therefore completely plausible. If the writer has seen 8 versions of this work that all looked the same and was satisfied by any of them, good luck. I am new to Wagner but have seen loads of Opera, here and overseas and this was a gripping night out.

Well said Lindsay ... I am surprised the original reviewer has not commented on how many versions she has seen. As for one of the other comments it is a silly thing to say that Wagner does not have a 'sound' and I said it should not sound like a long-lost Verdi opera ... it was not what 'history' tells us Wagner wanted. Not surprised the orchestra members thought so little of it ... they should know, even if I apparently do not. People want to like things ... wasn't there a tale once about the King's new clothes? In retrospect Kent's was a tired rehash of his and others ideas and ENO should go back to staying as clear of Wagner as they can.

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