Of the various possible ways of conducting Wagner's Flying Dutchman, ENO's Edward Gardner took the direct approach. From the first tremolo string notes, the orchestra launched into the main leitmotif at full tilt, followed by the sound of stormy seas swirling more furiously than you've ever heard them, leaving the audience breathless. It may not be the most refined and precise rendering of Wagner's music you'll ever hear, but it will certainly be one of the most exciting and muscular.
It was a magnificent opening, leaving Gardner with the slight problem of where to go next, given that it wasn't really possible to ratchet up the intensity level any further. None the less, it was a thoroughly enjoyable performance musically. As well as the main bulk of atmospheric music in Wagner's brass-laden signature style, the score contains a fair amount of pastiche material - folk dances, sailor's ballads and so on - into which Gardner did a particularly good job of breathing life. Overall, his tempi must have been fast, since the performance clocked in at two hours and ten minutes, a good twenty minutes shorter than usual (I'm not aware of any cuts); this worked fine for me.
Erik isn't the most exciting of the opera's characters (he has little to do except complain of being jilted by the heroine Senta), but that didn't stop Stuart Skelton from being the pick of the singers. He has bags of stage presence, his voice is open and warm and he achieves the improbable feat of making Wagner's music sound easy and comfortable to sing. Clive Bayley was entertaining as Daland, emphasising the small-minded cupidity of the man more than happy to prostitute his daughter for the sake of the Dutchman's gold and jewels. Orla Boylan as Senta and James Cresswell as the Dutchman both clocked in solid performances without quite hitting the same heights as Skelton.
Jonathan Kent's new production takes a distinctive and vivid angle on the story. In the overture, we see a dumb show of Daland reading bedtime stories to the child Senta, who plays with a toy ship as the stormy seas rage outside, created by spectacular video effects from Nina Dunn. Senta is at centre stage in her bed watching the whole of the first act, morphing into her grown-up self for the second: for the famous spinning chorus, Kent turns Daland's house into a factory making toy ships in bottles. But the grown-up Senta is carrying the same story book that she read as a child and is dangerously obsessed by it: there is no supernatural, no ghostly ship, only the fevered product of Senta's imagination. From Act II on, there's nothing in the way of costumes or setting to suggest the sea.
It's an intriguing way of looking at the story, the stagecraft was excellent throughout, and I thought Kent very nearly pulled it off - but not quite. There are two big coups de théâtre in The Flying Dutchman: the arrival of the Dutchman's ship in Act I and the appearance of the ghostly crew at the party in Act III. The first of these came off quite stunningly as the ship literally bursts into the room. The second didn't. The ghostly crew were presented as disembodied voices singing from the gallery; both orchestra and chorus gave it their all, but the staging of Daland's sailors staring up into the audience simply didn't convince me.
I was also left unconvinced by the ending. In Wagner's libretto, Senta leaps into the sea after the departing Dutchman. In Kent's version, the sailors' party has been a rough, violent affair in which they bait Senta mercilessly, at the end of which she kills herself with a broken bottle. Wagner based the opera on an ironic short story by Heinrich Heine which derides the melodramatic tale in which "Mrs Flying Dutchman" throws herself off a cliff (well done to ENO for including a translation of this in the programme). Where Wagner transforms Heine's intent, making Senta's death into an authentically grand heroic gesture, Kent returns to Heine's view of it as an idiotic and pointless suicide. Personally, I think the opera packs more power as a gothic ghost story in a maritime setting than as a tale of human delusion. But go judge for yourself: you may find that Kent's more rationalist approach suits you better than me, and in any case, Wagner's fabulous score is played and sung very creditably in this production.
Edward Gardner, ENO’s Olivier Award-winning Music Director, conducts his first Wagner opera. American bass James Creswell (Timur in 2009’s Turandot) stars as the legendary ship’s captain fated to sail the seas for ever, with Orla Boylan – a ‘radiant’ (Independent on Sunday) Sieglinde in 2004’s The Valkyrie – as Senta, the girl sent to save him.
London ColiseumSt. Martin's Lane
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2N 4ES
Eoife Checkland as child Senta, James Cresswell as the Dutchman © Robert Workman
Stuart Skelton as Erik watches Orla Boylan as Senta © Robert Workman
James Cresswell as the Dutchman, Orla Boylan as Senta © Robert Workman
Sailors' party in Act III © Robert Workman