Der fliegende Holländer - Royal Opera House, 23 February 2009 (opening night)
Oh dearie me. The Royal Opera House don't seem to have much luck with Wagner. And I had such high hopes for this new Der fliegende Holländer production. But I haven't sat through anything quite as tedious at Covent Garden since Iphigénie en Tauride a couple of years back. And a long sit it was too. Two and half hours non-stop is enough to give anyone a barnacled bottom.
Tim Albery's focus is Senta's daydreaming. And what she's escaping from is more important than what she's escaping to. She's not really bothered about the mysterious Dutchman, let alone redemption or any sort of spiritual enlightenment. She just wants to hop on his boat and get outta town. So she symbolically clutches a toy ship in place of the Dutchman's portrait that she sings about, looking predictably deranged.
Her mundane life is displayed in all its drabness. There's only one set, the weathered carcase of a giant ship. The lighting is dim. Welly-clad trawlermen and overalled factory girls stomp around in the gloom. An inch-deep puddle spreads apologetically across the front of the stage like a roof leak.
There are a couple of arresting visual moments when a bank of sewing machines drop from the sky for the spinning sequence and later when the Dutchman's sailors emerge from the hold tinted ghostly green. But otherwise it's relentlessly grim to watch, and the lack of light rapidly irritates.
Bryn Terfel was not up to his best, uncharacteristically subdued and opaque. To some extent this is demanded in a production which focusses on Senta, but he seemed to have little to offer vocally between a shout and a whisper. I find it hard to believe his voice has declined that much in the year or so since I last heard him, so I hope it's just a short-term health problem. His diction was superb and words immaculately pointed though.
Hans-Peter König's Daland was robustly sung though under-characterised. Torsten Kerl's manic Erik sounded strangulated, and his bleached mullet hurt my eyes nearly as much as the lousy lighting.
But perhaps the best singing came from the well-drilled chorus, who also showed more enthusiasm than anyone else on stage for the dreary production.
Although the Royal Opera House orchestra played very well, Marc Albrecht sanded down and whitewashed every ounce of genuine drama from the music, substituting theatrical mannerism. Excessively slow passages jarred against sprightly songs in a way which did credit to neither. A neatly-constructed and stirring score became interminably long and unforgiveably tedious. And how could an overture played that fast sound that dull?
When at the end Senta lay down and expired in the middle of the empty stage (no redemption here), I knew how she felt.
REVIEWS - a very mixed bag for this one
Rupert Christiansen in the Daily Telegraph - "unmissable"
Edward Seckerson in the Independent - "one of those rare evenings in the opera house that has you sitting so far forward in your seat that every muscle in your body is aching by close of play"
MusicOMH.com - "failed to live up to expectations"
George Hall in The Stage - "some thrilling playing and conductor Marc Albrecht does an impressive job"
Barry Millington in the Evening Standard - "a far cry from the thrilling productions seen in Germany in recent decades"
Musicalcriticism.com - "prevents us from engaging with the characters on a human level"
Richard Fairman in the FT - "The performances of the two central characters .... are so compelling that there is hardly time to focus on anything else"
Neil Fisher in the Times - "the strongest argument in favour of this unsentimental night at the opera comes from the pit"
Andrew Clements in the Guardian - "Tim Albery's staging is built around Bryn Terfel's haunted portrayal of the Dutchman, and the bass-baritone unquestionably delivers"