Der fliegende Holländer

Jeffrey Tate
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
29 October 2011
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
DalandStephen Milling
SentaAnja Kampe
ErikEndrik Wottrich
MaryClare Shearer
Der Steuermann DalandsJohn Tessier
Der HolländerEgils Siliņš

Ghostly ships and demonic captains ahoy

David Karlin, 19 Oktober 2011

As The Flying Dutchman nears its close, the crew of Daland’s ship are celebrating their safe homecoming and yelling at the Dutchman’s unseen crew to join them. To their horror, they realise that they have indeed woken the dead: the Dutchman’s crew are ghosts who have wandered the oceans for centuries: the storms cannot burst their sails for they are protected by Satan.

At last night’s performance, the Covent Garden chorus were on top form, and that scene was climactic and breathtaking. At its heart, The Flying Dutchman is a good, old-fashioned gothic ghost story; what makes it special is Wagner’s ability to conjure up atmosphere from its music. He was inspired by hearing stories from sailors during a dreadful voyage from Riga to London which lasted three weeks instead of the planned eight days: with his peculiarly obsessive nature, he threw himself into the subject, the result being a musical rendering of stormy seas and sailors’ lives which catches every detail and is supremely evocative. Another Wagner obsession was Weber’s overture to Der Freischutz (also a supernatural tale), and this shows in a series of glorious horn parts.

The opera was performed in one act with no intervals (as Wagner originally conceived it). In two and a half hours of continuous music, conductor Jeffrey Tate never permitted the pace to flag and brought out the full impact of Wagner’s rich score. Whether it be the seascapes, the ghostly, the sailors’ dances or the love scenes, the music never failed to entrance. Amongst the singers, Stephen Milling was outstanding as Daland, with a bass voice that was deep, powerful and perfectly articulated, all the while displaying the character’s coarse cheerfulness. The evening’s singing was generally notable for the diction: all the main singers had big voices, but you could make out every word. Eglis Silins came close to matching Milling’s firepower and grew in stature towards the end of the opera as the Dutchman reveals his true nature and the anguish within him. I mostly enjoyed Anja Kampe’s performance as Senta, although it was marred by massive use of vibrato.

As a piece of music, the work’s qualities are unquestionable; whether it works as a piece of drama depends on how you feel about the genre. If you’re happy to lose yourself in the gothic supernatural, it works just fine, but I had to force myself not to think about the plot or the characterisation too hard. Tim Albery’s production is long on atmosphere and short on detail: some parts worked very well indeed, some less so. The set consists of a steeply raked stage painted as the outside of a modern cargo ship, complete with portholes and ropes, giving a generally nautical feel as long as you don’t stop to question why the ship has turned over on its side. The set for the middle section was more effective, with the spinning wheels in Daland’s house transmogrified into sewing machines in a clothing factory. On-stage movement varied from top class (the sailors’ chorus, brilliantly depicting both drunkenness and fear) to bad (Senta and the Dutchman’s duet, where they hardly looked at each other and the movement around stage seemed totally disconnected from the words and music). David Finn’s lighting was notable for there not being very much of it: for a great deal of the opera the stage was in darkness with only the odd point of light. There was one fantastic lighting trick, though: the appearance of the ghostly ship was simply represented by a shadow moving from right to left across the stage.

But the most important things worked. We had an outstanding performance of the music, one of the best bits of chorus singing I’ve heard in a long time, some top notch Wagnerian singing and a production which, in spite of the odd defect, brought out a powerfully atmospheric nautical ghost story. And as I write this, the Dutchman’s leitmotif is still ringing in my ears.

Tim Albery’s production of The Flying Dutchman, first seen in 2009, now returns to the Royal Opera for a run of six performances, of which this was the first. It remains a wasted opportunity on stage, but irritated me less than last time. (Since the production team did not appear on stage, I assume that it was entrusted to a house revival director: ironically, then, it comes across better than it did before.) In musical terms, the performance proved preferable too, if nevertheless mixed in quality.

As so often, much depends on where one is seated. Last time, from the Balcony, I found the ‘sole virtue’ of the production to have been during the Overture, ‘with a surprisingly effective suggestion of wind and rain upon a makeshift stage curtain’. From the Stalls, however, David Finn’s lighting proved a little too strong, almost blinding at times, whilst the continued suggestion of the sea and its ebb and flow elicited mild nausea. Perhaps the impression of sea-sickness were intended; if so, it should not have been. Albery’s stance that a vaguely modern, working-class community is somehow equivalent to, or an appropriate replacement for, an earlier ‘straightforward’ life by the sea remains to my mind both wrongheaded and patronising. Yet the attempt at social ‘realism’, most clearly incarnated in the factory girls who change their clothes for a tarts’ night out, seems toned down in the revival, a welcome development, permitting a little more emphasis upon the ‘ghost story’ element to the drama. It remains a problem that the Dutchman seems to hold so little interest for the director. His plight not only loses its metaphysics; it barely seems to exist. The same, needless to say, holds for redemption – or lack thereof. Senta is again mostly left to her own devices, seeming less hysterical than just a little peculiar. Her toy ship remains an inadequate substitute for the picture, making nonsense of the Ballad, yet without real suggestion of reinterpretation.

It is a good thing, then, that the Dutchman and Senta were both strongly cast. Last time, Bryn Terfel, who will always be lauded by his legion of uncritical fans, was disappointing in the extreme, unsupported by the staging and veering between bark and crooned whisper. The Latvian bass-baritone Egils Silins proved superior in every respect. One heard every word – as, to be fair, one did with Terfel – but now the words meant something, both in themselves and in proper Wagnerian musico-dramatic alchemy with the notes. Vocal tone was just right, properly suggestive of Wotan: indeed, there were a couple of occasions when I was put in mind of the desperate, tortured Walküre monologue. (It is heartening to see that Paris has signed Silins for its complete Ring in 2013.) Anja Kampe assumed the role in 2009 too; on both occasions she impressed both in terms of textual response and stamina, though the production does her no favours whatsoever. Endrik Wottrich showed some strain, most glaringly at one point during the third act, but this was a much stronger performance than his recent Royal Opera Florestan. There is clearly a Siegmund-type voice locked within; the pity is that the voice production is often constricted. Still, he looked and often sounded handsome, no mere cipher, as is so often the case. Stephen Milling proved impressively attentive to words and text as Daland, as did John Tessier as the Steersman: his song emerged as a true Lied, moving in itself and not simply a plot device. Clare Shearer’s Mary, reprised from 2009, is hampered by the production’s frumpy portrayal, but again made little impression vocally either.

The Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus certainly did make a powerful vocal impression, testimony to fine training from Renato Balsadonna. Weight and line are equally present, and the chorus members do what they can with the staging. The orchestra was just as impressive. Germanic in heft and hue, it once again showed that , on a good night, this is a group of musicians to compare with any. Jeffrey Tate’s conducting, however, proved more of a mixed bag. On at least nine-and-a-half times out of ten, one can discern the progress of a musical performance from its opening bars; this proved an exception. Whilst they were very much on the driven side, the second subject was drawn out and lifeless, setting the pattern for much of the first and second acts. The Spinning Chorus and Senta’s Ballad pretty much ground to a halt. There was also major discrepancy at the beginning of the chorus not only between pit and stage but within the pit (cellos and woodwind). Yet the end of the second act and the third act sounded reinvigorated: more incisive, without being rushed. I suspect that the rest might come more sharply into focus throughout the run of performances: the orchestral sound is certainly there already.

Mark Berry

Opera Today

When this production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer premiered at the Royal Opera House in February 2009, (review here), Bryn Terfel was its raison d’être. His absence was sorely felt, even by those who aren’t usually seduced by his charms. In this revival, the draw was Jeffrey Tate’s return to Covent Garden after nearly 20 years.

Minimal stagings can work when they highlight meaning and music. Tim Albery’s production (designed by Michael Levine) is a blank canvas, which styles The Flying Dutchman rather than suggests much about who he is. No portrait of any kind in sight. Instead, a toy boat. The boat itself is wonderfully staged, and it’s a masterstroke to see real water on stage, lit so its reflection shines magically into the auditorium. But it doesn’t convey the wildness of the open ocean, nor the turbulent psychic storm around which this opera predicates.

Perhaps Albery’s interpretation is that the opera predicates on Senta and her frustratons, the Dutchman being a projection of her fantasies. Anja Kempe’s Senta was extremely impressive in 2009. Then, she was a perfect foil to Terfel’s solid, taciturn Dutchman. Kempe’s energy created Senta as driven to extremes to escape what to her might have seemed mind numbing conformity. The Dutchman is her ticket out of town, rather than a cursed soul. It’s a valid interpretation, given Albery’s factory staging of the spinning scene, and marginal references to the haunted ship. The concept is worth exploring, though here it’s rather too simplistic. Senta’s not Tosca. Wildness is tricky to sing into this part, and occasionally Kempe relied more on forcefulness than finesse. Nonetheless, she can do it well, and should settle further into the run.

Egils Silins was a late replacement for Falk Struckmann as The Dutchman. This was his Covent Garden debut, and possibly his highest profile performance to date. Although his voice isn’t particularly distinctive, he’s secure vocally and does seem to have a feel for the part. In a production where the singer has more to work with and is less exposed, he’d make a bigger impact. Part of this stems from Albery’s approach, where the Dutchman is reduced to little more than Senta’s dreams. It takes an unusually powerful and charismatic singer to counterbalance these limitations.

Stephen Milling’s Daland was forcefully secure, even too noble, given that the character has an unpleasant streak of venality, which would work well in Albery’s concept, but wasn’t developed. Still, it’s enough that he sang well. Endrik Wottrich’s Erik had problems with pitch and intonation, but was reasonably well acted. Clare Shearer’s Mary was excellent — no fault of hers that the role here was a cipher.

The role of Steersman is much bigger, and critical to the plot, for the Steersman is guides the ship into the distance. Both Senta and the Steersman dream, but Senta can’t think past the present. John Tessier has to sing suspended up a rope ladder, but hasn’t quite the character to make the part as compelling as it might be. But then many productions don’t make enough of the role, and this production doesn’t, either. It’s odd, given Albery’s interest in images of conformity as the Steersman is part of the crew. As always, the Royal Opera House choruses sing and move perfectly. The vocal battle between the Dutchman’s crew and Daland’s crew isn’t quite as horrific as it might be, but the “Steuermann, laß die Wacht!” refrain was sung with such jaunty zest that it left no doubt that these sailors and their families had no time for spooks and neurosis.

And so to Jeffrey Tate’s long awaited return to London. Fortunately Albery did not stage the protracted Overture, so we could concentrate on the orchestra. Tate’s pace was electric, injecting the malevolent atmosphere the staging tried so hard to suppress. The energy dissipated at other points, which was a kindness to the singers, who didn’t have to compete, and to Albery’s staging, which was so much at odds with the demonic, elemental fury in the music. When the Dutchman’s crew descend back into the bowels of their ship, Tate lets the orchestra burst forth again. They’re back on the ocean again, metaphorically defying storms and tribulations.

Anne Ozorio

The Telegraph

Even I, a fanatical Wagnerian, find Der Fliegende Holländer performed without an interval a bit of a stretch, so first of all a warning ­ this performance lasted by my watch a continuous two hours and thirty-two minutes. Am I alone in thinking it better for everyone on both sides of the curtain if there’s a break after this opera’s first scene? Remember, even Wagner himself sanctioned an interval in Das Rheingold, something which I would consider a step too far.

Here the extra ten minutes or so added to the normal running time was the result of conductor Jeffrey Tate taking the duets and monologues at stately tempi, with expressively pregnant pauses between phrases. Although there were minutes (especially in the central scene between the Dutchman and Senta) when the tension sagged to floppy, I was convinced by the interpretation nevertheless ­ it had a grandeur and command worthy of the opera’s ambitions, and brought Weberian grace and charm to the dances and shanties too. The orchestral playing was first-rate, with some particularly brilliant work from the brass. Once thought to be in line for the top job at the Royal Opera, Tate hasn’t appeared at Covent Garden for eighteen years now – currently, he’s based at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. It is good to have him back.

Tim Albery’s production, first seen in 2009, has been powerfully revived, with some notably fluent handling of the chorus (always an acid test of a good opera director). Imaginatively designed by Michael Levine around a curved metallic sheet and a vaguely modern setting, it features some splendid spectral special effects and focuses clearly on one of Wagner’s most pressing themes – the meeting of two obsessive and uncompromising romantic fantasists for whom the reality of a person is much less engaging than the projection of their own dreams.

A Latvian bass-baritone Egils Silins sang the Dutchman with crisp projection and even tone, radiating a gaunt and baleful presence which mesmerizes Anja Kampe’s nervy, vulnerable Senta. Although I guess she found Tate’s funereal pacing of the Ballad testing, Kampe was in strong voice, saving her best for some thrilling singing in the final scene.

Rupert Christiansen

Classical Source

There is an inspired moment early-on in Tim Albery’s 2009 production of Wagner’s youthful opera (given in its single act version), here receiving its first revival. John Tessier’s finely sung Steersman finishes his Lied “Mir Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer” (In thunder and storm from the distant sea) and falls asleep on the deck. Gradually a gigantic shadow creeps across the stage from left to right, sucking light and life as it goes: the Dutchman’s ghost ship has moored alongside, unseen, and the world turns black as Acheron. Sad to say, this virtuoso lighting effect by David Finn is the only visual felicity in the entire evening that measures up to Wagner’s romantic vision. For the rest, Albery’s Leitmotif is ugliness. There is no beauty to be found anywhere in this production: Michael Levine’s set is a drab evocation of a seagoing tanker, Senta is a dowdy seamstress, Erik is a weak bruiser and the Dutchman himself is a presence without presence. The singers are not to blame for such visual parsimony; it’s all of a piece with Albery’s chosen mood. He presents Senta’s idealised fantasy of the Dutchman as a means of escape from her long hours of drudgery in a sweatshop, but in doing so he seems to forget that this is a fairytale and that someday her prince will come. The tale of a mariner condemned forever to sail the seven seas aboard his supernatural ship until he finds true love is the stuff of Grimm, not grime. When a director rejects the composer’s intentions he ought at least to have something of his own to offer in their place, but this concept lacks inner logic. For the man who masterminded ENO’s classic Billy Budd to be floored by another sea-faring epic is a puzzle; but burdened by passionless encounters among his principals and random ‘eighties costumes among his extras, Albery’s version of The Flying Dutchman is creatively landlocked.

Jeffery Tate, too long absent from these shores, drops rare anchor at the Royal Opera House to conduct this revival before, one assumes, setting sail for a further septennium. After a firecracker start to the Overture his reading relaxed into a lovingly shaped but low-voltage account that paid its dues more to Albery’s limp vision than to Wagner’s coruscating score. The Orchestra played well for him, and the extended Royal Opera Chorus was outstanding, but only occasionally did Tate’s Dutchman fly.

Anja Kampe as Senta (Der fliegende Holländer, The Royal Opera, October 2011). Photograph: Mike Hoban In his opening scene, Egils Silins (a late replacement for the advertised Falk Struckmann) sang without bloom and had to scratch around for the low notes; while Stephen Milling, partnering him as Senta’s father, out-sang him. It did not help that the two singers’ voices are strikingly alike, which made for a dramatic mismatch; but it meant that only through his eerie stillness did Silins command the stage. Things did improve, however, and by the time he shared his great duet with Anja Kampe’s Senta he was able to project with far greater technical comfort and character.

As Erik, Senta’s jealous suitor, Enrick Wottrick was cursed with an off-night. For some reason, in the opera’s final sequence his voice became so tense that a vocal mishap felt inevitable long before it occurred. This was all the more unfortunate because in other respects Wottrick’s interpretation was among the more vibrant contributions. Kampe, for her part, was magnificent throughout. Her idiomatic performance trumped Albery’s drab ideas to create power and passion in spite of, rather than because of, the production. With rock-solid high notes and formidable breath control allied to a tone that remains beautiful under pressure, this was music-making at its surest and purest. Kampe already sings a lot of Wagner (she must be a marvellous Kundry), but it’s striking that as yet she lists so little Janáček in her repertoire. Such a thrilling dramatic soprano should put that right as soon as possible; Emilia Marty awaits, and that old girl isn’t getting any younger.

Mark Valencia

Daily Express

It’s not surprising then that he identified with the legendary outsider condemned to sail the seas eternally until redeemed by the love of a good woman.

From 1841 the composer reworked the opera over the years, expanding its one act to three. Tim Albery’s revived production follows the one-act version of two and a half hours without interval; strenuous for the audience as well as the cast.

The Dutchman this time around is Latvian bass-baritone Egils Silins, who makes his Covent Garden debut in the role created in 2009 by Bryn Terfel.

He may not fit Terfel’s boots for physique but he has a voice of dark resonance and a brooding presence that evokes the ghostly captain of the mystery ship with blood red sails.

At times it seems like a contest where Wagner is trying to pound the singers into submission Michael Levine’s abstract set emphasises the spooky element. The time and place is a present day Baltic port and the stage is a sloping curve of metal plates like the hull of a ship. With the arrival of the ghost ship, a looming shadow engulfs the stage.

Most chilling of all is the scene where the townsfolk, in party mood, urge the crew of the silent ship to join them for food and drink. Finally, a stage flap opens to reveal black-clad men lit by an unearthly green aura.

Soprano Anja Kampe returns to the role of Senta, whose obsessive love for the Flying Dutchman rules her life.

Despite his warnings of the unknown fate that lies before her, she determines to rescue the Dutchman from his curse. Kampe throws herself into the role with intensity and the final scene is a thrilling test of what a singer can do when pushed.

Tenor Endrik Wottrich as Senta’s rejected fiancé Erik fell vocally at the last fence on the first night but there was good support from Stephen Milling as Senta’s sea captain father Daland and John Tessier as the Steersman.

Excellent work too from the chorus and the orchestra under Jeffrey Tate.

The Roman River Festival began in 2000 as a result of a village church recital near Colchester. Over the years its founders, Orlando and Zelie Jopling, have expanded it to a nine-day event of opera, concerts and masterclasses.

The medieval church of St Barnabas at Great Tey was the apt venue for Armonico Consort’s programme, Allegri Miserere and other early music masterpieces, sung by an unaccompanied choir directed by Christopher Monks. It was an atmospheric evening of fine singing.

Family events included a weekend workshop on Puccini’s La Bohème, ending in a performance at Colchester’s Firstsite Art Gallery. Directors Dominic Harlan and Hazel Gould, who run other outreach projects, drew out a cast of all ages to give a highly creditable cut-down version. Similar events are planned for the festival’s programme next October.

Clare Colvin

The Spectator

Compelling, succinct, elemental, The Flying Dutchman, Wagner’s first indisputable masterwork, wouldn’t seem to present any great problems for an opera house, unless his directions about heaving ships are taken too literally — very unlikely — so why does one never see it well produced? The Royal Opera has made especially heavy weather of it, but not in the right sense, for the last quarter-century. Tim Albery’s 2009 production has egregious faults, and few merits: above all, it fails to establish any potent atmosphere, and the singers are left largely to their own devices, with unhelpful scenery to stagger around on.

The present revival is nonetheless very worthwhile, thanks to the powerful rendering of the two leading roles. As the Dutchman, Egils Silins, a Latvian who sang a superb Wotan in Manchester three months ago, delivers a great performance. Ideally one would like a slightly larger voice, but his is beautiful, steady, legato rather than declamatory, and he lives the words and the drama with urgency. Most of those things are true of Anja Kampe as Senta, too, though occasionally on the first night she erred on the side of overenthusiasm, but that she managed to create so vivid a character while nursing a toy galleon, substitute for the Dutchman’s portrait, and wearing a little late-1940s dress is a tribute to her artistic integrity.

None of the other singers is in this league. Stephen Milling lacks the strong bass needed for Daland, and fails to realise the Rocco-like complexities of the character. Endrik Wottrich aims for a more robust Erik than normal, all to the good, but his voice ran out on him by the time he got to his aria.

The strangest feature of the evening was the conducting of Jeffrey Tate, whose long absence from the UK has been a scandal. He began very much as he didn’t mean to go on: tremendous surging strings, desperate brass, the Overture’s opening sounded as if it was going to be classic. But no sooner did he get to Senta’s theme than the brakes were applied, and never released. Since I happened to be in the right mood, the trance-like conducting of most of the work, until the battle of the choruses, was something I found moving, and it gave the principals a chance to dig into their roles. But I can see why people might have wondered what had happened to the voltage. The clarity of the orchestral texture throughout couldn’t be disputed, so that one noticed Weber’s influence much more than usual. Much to its credit, the Royal Opera plays the work straight through without an interval, something Wagner never heard but surely would have approved of. The inadequacies of the staging faded as the magnetism of the performance, if you felt it that way, increased.

Opera North knows no limits to its ambitions, as its putting-on of a new production of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, that weird, sprawling but oddly gripping opera, shows. The first night was not a great success, but nothing like an irredeemable failure. There could be no two views about this conducting, or the mighty playing of the orchestra: Richard Farnes started exactly as he meant to go on, with an intensity combined with a suppleness that drew what can seem disparate elements into an inevitably progressing melodrama.

The singers were a curious obverse of those in the Dutchman: all the minor roles, some of them important and demanding, were excellently taken, William Dazeley as Yeletsky, that incipient Gremin, and Jonathan Summers as Tomsky above all. But what had happened to the leads? Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts is a singer whom I usually admire fervently, and is the finest Grimes I have ever seen or heard, and that includes Jon Vickers. Like Vickers, Lloyd-Roberts lives dangerously, and on this occasion not only courted but also wed disaster. In Act I his voice cracked repeatedly, intonation was dire, and he overacted as if in a decadent 1920s Viennese opera. He must have learned his lesson, for in the other acts he calmed down, but by then the figure of Herman had nearly disintegrated.

The other major disappointment was Orla Boylan’s Lisa. Boylan has often been a great singing actress, but on this occasion she was neither. The role eluded her from start to finish, and the lovely, passionate singing she has so often produced were at most hinted at. I can’t believe that these two artists won’t improve during the run. Dame Josephine Barstow, on the other hand, was very much herself, and the Countess became, in her parlando interpretation and macabre acting, a caricature of Grand Guignol. The tone of The Queen of Spades, so unlike any other Tchaikovsky work, is so peculiar that perhaps that is what was intended.

Neil Bartlett’s production leaves all options open, with minimal scenery and routine movements. When the singing rises to the level of the conducting, this will be worth travelling a long way to see.

Michael Tanner

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A production by Tim Albery