Der fliegende Holländer

Marc Albrecht
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
4 March 2009
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
DalandHans-Peter König
SentaAnja Kampe
ErikTorsten Kerl
MaryClare Shearer
Der Steuermann DalandsJohn Tessier
Der HolländerBryn Terfel
The Independent

You knew from the palpable fizz of those open fifths in tremolando violins and the cut and thrust of the horns that conductor Marc Albrecht was very much at the helm of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman and that he’d started exactly as he meant to go on. Add to that the flying Welshman, Bryn Terfel, weighing anchor in a performance of thrilling intensity more than matched on this occasion by a soprano, Anja Kampe, who simply knows no fear; throw in the Royal Opera Chorus on blistering form and a stage director, Tim Albery, for whom less is always more, and you have 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.

Albery doesn’t attempt to illustrate the tempest-tossed opening of the opera – Wagner does that supremely well in his overture – but he and his designer Michael Levine do suggest an awesome scale right from the start with the front cloth imagined as a giant sail caught in cross winds and streaked with salty spray. Suddenly the entire stage is a gigantic metal hull that dwarfs even its crew and when the mysterious Dutchman’s ship does finally arrive the all-enveloping shadow creeps across the stage like a total eclipse.

Enter now the flying Terfel toting a rope like it’s his lifeline or his cross to bear for all eternity. His still, dark, bulky, threatening presence is already not quite of this world and as he quietly utters the words “Die Frist ist um” (“The time is up”) you sense the weariness of his eternal torment.

Terfel’s German has always been exemplary but here he uses words like a fist of defiance against “eternal annihilation”, spitting out consonants with impunity and making phrases like “barbarous son of the sea” as ugly and they are vivid. He is as good here as I’ve heard him in a long time, capitalising now on his well-marinated vocal timbre, weathered and craggy but still capable of great tenderness in those ascents into honeyed head voice.

The line “Tell me, blessed angel, to whom I owe the terms of my salvation” has the ache of hopeless longing about it and it’s at this moment that Albery first brings in Senta cradling a model of the Dutchman’s ship close to her heart. Then, as her workplace, the factory sewing room, descends from above like some alien starship it seems almost to underline the sense of her remoteness from reality.

Anja Kampe has a very special intensity on stage. The vaulting vocal line of her ballad’s verses spoke excitingly of her fearlessness while the recurring plaint of the chorus had one truly believing in “the angel of salvation”, its final reprise like a hushed benediction. Of course, the danger of a talent as unstinting as this is always going to be wear and tear.

Kampe doesn’t want to sing too many Sentas if she hopes to hang on to the lyricism in her voice. It’s a push for most, this role, but definitely for her. Still, what inner-light she radiated: nowhere more so than in the central duet where Albery truly caught the other-worldliness of Senta and her elusive Dutchman – just two chairs a single hanging lamp isolating them in time and space.

Indeed in this contemporary take on the old fable the Dutchman only ever really exists in Senta’s imagination. I’m not sure what Wagner would have made of Albery’s dénouement but this Senta does not hurl herself into the briny deep of eternity but rather is left to languish on dry land clutching on to her very own phantom vessel – and her dreams.

Edward Seckerson Thursday, 26 February 2009

Opera Review

The Flying Dutchman seems as ill-fated at Covent Garden as its eponymous hero is in Wagner’s drama. I do not remember anything much about Ian Judge’s production, last seen in 2000, but I do remember some of the worst Wagner conducting I have ever had the misfortune to encounter, courtesy of the incomprehensibly esteemed – at least in some quarters – Simone Young. Marc Albrecht, whose work I had greatly admired last year in Munich for The Bassarids, was not so bad as that; at least he did not sound as though he was learning the score en route. On the evidence of this performance, however, he is no Wagnerian, which is distinctly odd, given that the very qualities standing him in such good stead in Henze’s opera should have done so here too.

That is why I wonder whether Albrecht’s decidedly stop-start, non-‘music-drama’ approach was deliberate: a revisionist attempt to direct us to (a handful of) the opera’s sources rather than to explore what it became. The Wagnerian melos – I do not believe it in any way illegitimate to employ terms Wagner had yet to coin – was nowhere to be heard. Instead of a guiding symphonic thread, there was merely a collection of numbers strung together, connected by carelessly-constructed – in performance, that is – orchestral passages. A backward-looking approach might have worked in theory, I suppose, at least for those more charmed by the hangovers from Italian opera than inspired by the extraordinary dramatic journey on which Wagner here truly commences. Even then, quite why one would wish thus to reduce the work’s stature, would remain a matter for the psychoanalyst.

In reality, however, all that was accomplished was to make a taut, concise score drag interminably. The gains that ought to have accrued from the rightful decision to perform the work without an interval – in this case, I do not think the alternative is even worth considering – were squandered by a performance that married drawn out, lifeless slow passages with caricatured Solti-like, or Solti-lite, excitability. There were also serious lapses of coordination between stage and pit, especially when Solti-lite came to the fore. Given the wrongheadedness of the conducting, it was perhaps surprising to note that the orchestra itself was on rather good form. A few slips notwithstanding, there was a commendable richness of string tone, complemented by some splendid contributions from the brass. Orchestral execution in the Overture was of a high standard, yet it appeared to go on forever; without the requisite implacability of line, it veered dangerously close to an operatic pot pourri. Sadly, this set the tone for the rest of the performance.

There were a few other straws at which to clutch. The choral singing was excellent, for which great credit must go to Renato Balsadonna’s preparations. Anja Kampe, barring the occasional overly-operatic exaggeration, shone as Senta, at least insofar as the production allowed her to do so. Hers was a powerfully musical and dramatic portrayal, within the constraints with which she had to work, signalling a vast improvement upon her Act II Isolde under Vladimir Jurowski last December. If Kampe sings as well as this at Glyndebourne in the summer, Jurowski’s Tristan might turn out to be something quite special. Torsten Kerl was not a bad Erik, but there was nothing unforgettable about his performance, quite unlike Klaus Florian Vogt in Vienna last year. Kerl was musical but somewhat anonymous: perhaps fair enough for the role, but Vogt showed what can be done with it. It is difficult to imagine Kerl as the Glyndebourne Tristan he is slated to become. John Tessier made a good job of the small role of the Steersman.

Otherwise, the cast was disappointing. Bryn Terfel doubtless suffered from the bizarre lack of interest shown by the production in its central character; indeed, one sensed an understandable bewilderment concerning the nature of his role. One could hear without straining every word of the text he delivered, which makes a welcome change from many interpreters. Nevertheless, his was a performance that poorly repaid the Royal Opera’s forgiveness in having him back, following his crying off the Ring. When he sang, there were passages not entirely lacking in his former vocal beauty. Much of the text, however, was either despatched in an irritating ‘ghostly’ whisper or simply barked. No one seemed to have told him that Italianate musical values were to be the order of the day, since his phrasing was as choppy as the North Sea. Hans-Peter König made something of Daland’s venality but a richer tone would have been appreciated. Poor Clare Shearer, made up like Nora Batty, made little other impression as Mary.

This brings me to Tim Albery’s production, perhaps the greatest disappointment of all. Its sole virtue was seen during the Overture, with a surprisingly effective suggestion of wind and rain upon a makeshift stage curtain. As mentioned above, the figure of the Dutchman seemed to hold no interest for Albery. Wagner’s myth was brought down to the level of dreary realism, which appeared to aim at social commentary, yet spectacularly – or, better, wimperingly – misfired. This was Wagner as deflated EastEnders. So far as I could discern, the production seemed more interested in portraying a slice of life in a community randomly relocated to a time and place irredeemably unfashionable: was this 1970s Grimsby? I say ‘irredeemably,’ since redemption, or even its denial, did not seem to figure at all. Senta merely seemed silly – and most probably a little mad, though not too much. This was no study in hysteria; it was just a bit gloomy. For some reason – or rather, as it seemed, for none at all – she brought on to the stage a toy ship during the Dutchman’s monologue. It would remain there in subsequent scenes, serving most confusingly as a substitute for the picture to which Senta sings her Ballad. The nondescript costumes of the sailors and the tarty yet unrevealing garb of their girls seemed somehow to suggest a Carry on Sailing meets Play for Today, and yet it signally failed to amuse, let alone to proffer any insights. The attire of the Dutchman’s crew appeared to suggest the nineteenth century. Again clutching ever more desperately at straws, I wondered whether some kind of opposition was being posited between (relatively) modern times and the period of composition. If so, nothing was made of it.

Harry Kupfer unforgettably portrayed the Dutchman as Senta’s dream. This was not even interesting enough to be a nightmare.

Mark Berry

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 24 February 2009

Debate has long raged over exactly how to pin Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer down. It is the earliest of the operas to be included in the Bayreuth canon and, following the composer’s own lead, was officially recast as a Music Drama avant la lettre by Cosima Wagner after his death.

However, it is a unique work that both looks forward to Wagner’s later masterpieces and backwards to the Romantic Schaueroper tradition; some early critics even complained that it marked a regressive step after the Meyerbeer-inspired Rienzi. As such, it presents a director with unique challenges.

Tim Albery’s approach is unusual since it posits an unflinchingly tragic view. To be sure, opting for the ‘Dresden’ ending, without the post-Tristan reprise of the ‘redemption’ theme in the final bars, removes much of the certainty of the drama’s conclusion. However, Albery’s vision swings beyond ambiguity into tragedy to such a degree that it threatens to undermine the whole opera. Quite apart from anything else, it makes for a pretty bleak evening for the audience and results in a dramatically weak conclusion: as per the programme’s synopsis, here ‘Senta remains behind, alone’.

Much of the production – with neat and ingenious designs by Michael Levine – is theatrically satisfying on its own terms. I wasn’t totally convinced by the overture being played against a wind-swept and rain-battered back-cloth, but the main set is imposing and austere. An abstract slab of weather-worn hull, curved up at either end, is adorned with a row of grimy portholes; a sturdy mooring rope is slung across the stage from the left. A ladder stands behind it, in front of another vast, shady structure; water runs along the front of the stage.

The arrival of the Dutchman’s ship is powerfully and economically evoked by the stage gradually becoming enveloped with darkness. A battery of sewing machines descends from the heavens for Act Two’s ‘clothing factory’ and part of the hull is raised to produce the below-deck scene for the Act Three party; most of the rest of the drama is played out with minimal adjustment. The sailors, in costumes by Constance Hofmann, are clearly employed thanklessly on a hard-working vessel, while the women they’ve left ashore toil away during the day before impatiently tarting themselves up for the evening’s socialising. The replacement of the Dutchman’s portrait with an anachronistic model of a galleon might not seem a terrible idea, but its constant presence on the stage after being distractingly brought on by Senta during the Dutchman’s monologue, began to wear. The party scene was effective at first, on the other hand, but when the ‘Ghosts’ appeared, they were doused in ghoulish-green lighting, an effect which in its stock theatricality seemed to admit that the supernatural simply had no place in the production.

With all this, Albery has undoubtedly conjured up a authentically grim life both at sea and ashore. However, Bryn Terfel’s Dutchman offers very little by way of contrast and he looks tired and battered when he trudges on for his great monologue, and remains so for most of the opera. We already have a stage essentially shorn of romanticism and, in denying the Dutchman nobility as a character, we also lose the essential romance of Wagner’s story.

Here Senta’s longing for rescue and redemption simply seems unrealistic when we see that the her potential saviour leads a life defined less by the grand tragedy of his supernatural damnation than by the same tawdry hopelessness that exists in her own community.

Matters on this occasion weren’t helped by a performance from Terfel that swung between anger and supplicant self-pity, and which didn’t hear him vocally on his best form. Although he started well with an impossibly hushed ‘Die Frist ist um!’ before roaring impressively into the main part of his monologue, the limitations of his approach soon became clear. There was too little middle ground between hushed whispers and a full-voiced declamation which occasionally turned into hectoring; in the final scene he was still producing the volume but the result, no doubt due in part to tiredness, was deeply unmusical. Much of the time he seemed unsure of what to do with Wagner’s more traditional cantilena, studiously avoiding a smoothly produced legato line. At the start of his big duet with Senta, though, he just let the voice sing out, producing one of the musical highlights of the evening.

Making her Royal Opera House debut as Senta, Anja Kampe was probably the star of the production. She threw herself into the role with abandon – including hanging precariously onto rising gangplank at the Dutchman’s departure, before leaping off – and often sang thrillingly. Her fearless approach led to a couple of rough edges, but she produced an outstanding Ballad and only tired slightly towards the end.

As Erik, Torsten Kerl sang with golden tone but strangely constricted sounding German. He was outstanding at the opening of his dream narration but his admirable attempts to bring the character to life made for an Act Three Cavatina where the melodic line was rather snatchy.

Hans-Peter König’s Daland was robustly sung and acted and directed with subtlety to produce a far more rounded character than we’re used to from this role. John Tessier’s Steersman and Clare Shearer’s bossy Mary completed the cast. The augmented Royal Opera House Chorus was outstanding, and was directed naturally and effectively; the men were particularly fine in the party scene, the Norwegian crew heartily out-singing the Dutchman’s.

Marc Albrecht’s account of the score was well attuned to the production: swift, powerful and unsentimental. Under him the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House played with considerable verve, keeping up admirably with some fast tempos and furious accentuation. Wagner’s score sounded powerfully raw and Albrecht was excellent at winding up the musical tension. However, he missed a great deal of the charm that pervades the work’s lighter moments and hurried, for example, through the jolly duets between Daland and the Dutchman.

Ultimately, it was the tendency – both in the theatrical and musical direction – to smooth over the opera’s generic heterogeneity that proved problematic. This was especially so since it was carried out in the service of a concept which itself seems out sympathy with Wagner’s intentions – original or retrospective. It is the hodge-podge of musical styles and moods coupled to Wagner’s early idealism and Romanticism that, for better or worse, define this opera and help it maintain some sort of equilibrium. This production has a lot of good things, but it fails to capture that sense of balance and, in the end, prevents us from engaging with the characters on a human level.

By Hugo Shirley

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A production by Tim Albery