The Flying Dutchman - English National Opera, 28 April 2012 (first night)
It seems Jonathan Kent has been watching a few classic German opera DVDs. His new The Flying Dutchman (yes, it's sung in English) for ENO bravely departs from straightforward story telling -but only to recycle some of the weariest cliches in Wagner Oper. Slick West End-worthy production values and a few satisfying musical aspects do not entirely compensate.
His basic premise is a familiar one to those who have seen Harry Kupfer's seminal '80s production and the many it inspired: the Dutchman is Senta's fantasy. We first meet her during the overture as a small girl in her bedroom. Her father gives her a book to keep her occupied. Its story of the Flying Dutchman sailing the seas allows her imagination to conjure up the waves which curl and crash around her, courtesy of some stunningly effective projections.
Little Senta is still there for the first act, imagining the Dutchman's ship as its gigantic prow comes crashing through the backdrop in a jawdropping coup de theatre. If you want spectacle, Kent is clearly your man. The Dutchman himself she sees as some swashbuckling Russell Brand figure in a greatcoat and curls, in contrast to the dull modern dress of her father.
We fast-forward a few years for the second act. As Edward Gardner has selected the currently modish no-breaks version of the opera, this involves a swift scene change replacing the child's bed with a line of tables. Senta is now a dowdy young woman working in a factory that makes ship -in-a-bottle souvenirs. Erik is her security guard colleague; her workmates mock her preoccupation with the Flying Dutchman book she still carries around. In reality, the 'Dutchman' is just some random sailor Daland has pimped his daughter to. But she, unable to distinguish fact from fantasy, perceives him as the romantic stranger from her treasured book, and we see the scene through her eyes.
The final act is a factory party that grows increasingly wild. Senta gets shoved, prodded and pawed by costumed men and laughed at by her operaslut co-workers. And yes, you can guess what's coming next. It's the obligatory rape scene, statistically proven to occur in over 73.2% of current German Hollanders. The 'Dutchman' has now peeled off his greatcoat to reveal a standard issue stripey t shirt - he's just a regular bloke after all. As he mounts her, Senta blocks out the ordeal by summoning up the ghostly chorus in her mind. I need hardly point out that this fits neither music nor words - despite a generously flexible translation by David Pountney.
When Erik confronts Senta the next morning with the reality of what's happened, it's too much for her, and she does herself in. With a broken bottle, which I haven't seen before - it may be the most original touch in the production.
Anyone able to ignore the specifics of libretto and score may find it all makes compelling theatrical sense - and perhaps that's the audience the ENO are aiming at. Certainly the beautifully constructed sets and the expert manoeuvering of the large cast will not disappoint anyone more used to the immaculate professional standards of the West End musical.
Edward Gardner conducted with tremendous feeling for the drama, and never let the pace slack. The orchestra played beautifully for him, though the necessary darker tones were absent from their palette.
The standout singer was Stuart Skelton as Erik. I don't think I have ever heard the part sung as warmly and sympathetically, nor as beautifully. Unlike most Wagner tenors, Skelton has no trouble accessing the particular kind of vulnerability so key to this role. Quite wonderful - for anyone who goes to the opera purely for the voices, Skelton is worth the price of admission on his own.
No-one else was quite up to his standard. James Creswell sang the Dutchman most elegantly, but his voice lacks the darkness and power the role really requires. Clive Bayley as Daland was also underweight, though his intelligent characterisation was a compensation. Orla Boylan's Senta was troublesome. Thin-toned and squally to begin with, she finally opened up towards the end of the final act. Having heard her before I think this part is within her grasp - however she didn't prove it on the first night. With luck, later performances may be better.
production photos (above) Robert Workman/ ENO
curtain call photos (below) intermezzo.typepad.com