Opera North and ‘The Flying Dutchman’: A Review

While having ostensibly little to do with the East Asian themes that normally permeate this website, the following post is connected to my interest in German classical music and specifically opera. Regular readers more interested in Northeast Asia can trace Wagner’s relevance for studies of state-driven culture in the region more fully via my article ‘North Korean Hip-hop? Reflections on Musical Diplomacy and the DPRK‘ (Acta Koreana, 2009).  — Adam Cathcart, University of Leeds 

Opera North and ‘The Flying Dutchman’: A Review

For listeners seeking a vein into the psychological, witnessing a performance of Richard Wagner’s early work can be a mystifying experience.  The Italianate melodic gestures, uncomfortable resemblance to ‘number opera,’ maudlin approach to drama, and logical chasms in plot construction seem inevitably primed to disappoint.  It is Wagner’s creative rebellion against these conventions which we today find worthwhile. Perhaps it is for reasons of properly anchoring Wagner as a man of his time — and to indulge a certain personal penchant for darkness — that we attend productions of his early work.

Opera North’s new production of The Flying Dutchman (Der Fliegender Hollander) presented the composer as a creative artist in flux. The program notes, presented in an attractive bundle, laid out the matter exquisitely — and economically. At £5, it was money well-spent, marred only by General Director Richard Mantle’s use of the adjective ‘taut’ to describe the drama rather than his ideal audience’s perception to it.

In this a beautifully coordinated and semi-staged affair at Leeds Town Hall, the symphonic powers of the Opera North Orchestra were on full display. Attacks and releases were precise; the dynamic range and intonation (on a rather hot stage, no less) were impressive. The wind playing was very fine, with the exception of a couple of predictable gulps from the French horns lost in the excitement of a fortissimo. The strings scrubbed away admirably, seemingly never fatigued by the staggering amount of chromatic passagework present in the score. (The bulky singers often blocking my own view of the principle string players, I resorted to watching the back desks of the violoncello and bass sections, all of whom showed extreme left-hand nimbleness in the task.) A cameo appearance by off-stage piccolos during a third act storm was appropriately alarming.

Writing a fair review of singers of Wagnerian opera is practically impossible: The roles are massive, the vocal demands great, and the tradition equally daunting.  Those engaged by Opera North acquitted themselves well. The Swedish bass Mats Almgren proved a tremendous Daland, whose gaunt and steely persona gave the drama an immediate injection of verve and longing for land. Along with his jocular male chorus, he surely would not have appeared out of place drinking a pint a century ago in some Hull pub for sailors. Marc Le Brocq was an adequate Steersman, appropriately deferential, but often sinning against the guild by failing to end his phrases with the necessary consonants.

Occasionally events beyond the hall will colour how one listens and perceives the drama. Fortunately the audience last night was completely rapt; there was minimal coughing, and no cell phones (or moaning, as listeners to a January Halle orchestra performance of Brahms 4th Symphony in the Town Hall will recollect) from the gallery. The peal of ambulance sirens, however, did cut through the civic musical space at at least three times during this performance, reminding the listeners of that cruel world lurking beyond the stage curtains. Thus Senta, the female heroine being married off by her father, took on attributes of an ISIS bride in Bradford. She has become enchanted by the picture of an ideal man, a warrior-type, whom she has never met. Even before her father barters her off for a bit of jewelry, she is fantasizing about being swept away into the totality of death which this man, her ideal husband, represents.

Erik, her current love interest, is a structural afterthought, only existing to create a bare minimum of dramatic tension in Acts II and III.  Yet, as performed by Mati Turi, an outstanding tenor from Estonia, the role takes on real heft, and Erik becomes a pre-Siegfried in gestation. Turi’s descending arpeggios elicited audible gasps from the women sitting behind me in the left balcony, who had been otherwise silent throughout the performance. The duets between Senta (performed by Alwyn Mellor, born to do Tosca) and Erik brought out the best of the Italian side of the opera. To cue the euphemism generator used by the Opera North General Director, it is indeed here that ‘Wagner’s cosmopolitan influences are more clearly discernible than perhaps they are in his later works.’

One would have wished that the massive glowing screen behind the players might not have been lit during the overture, whose glorious apex was inexplicably  overshadowed by the image of a dry (dry!) human skull amid the waves. Death and deathlessness are at whatever philosophical core this opera possesses, however, and Bela Perencz’s fulfillment of the role was dark, boomy, and emotionally cavernous. His Dutchman was the picture of anguished male solitude, all-too-easy joy at the acquisition of an unknown woman, and passing shades of guilt at the deaths he had caused along the way. With his restless ambition, brooding over ‘Zahllose Opfer / countless victims’ and oddly shabby jeweled coat, The Dutchman’s attraction to certain young viewers of opera in early 20th century Vienna would have been strong.

Finally, a word is in order about the opera’s female chorus, whose productive traditionalism forms the centerpiece of Act II. With impeccable German diction and tasteful deployment on either side of the stage, the women’s chorus of Opera North filled the emotional void opened up by Act I and brought an end, at least temporarily, to the suicidal laments of The Dutchman. It occurred to me that the motif used during their ‘spinning song’ was later borrowed and transformed by Gustav Mahler in his 4th Symphony, set to a text ‘Wir genießen dem himmlischen Freuden.’ Fitting stuff: There is indeed pleasure in production, and among society. The Opera North has brought to bear yet another unforgettable Wagner production.

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