Der fliegende Holländer

Carlo Rizzi
Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
25 February 2006
Welsh National Opera Millennium Centre Cardiff
Recording Type
  live   studio
  live compilation   live and studio
Daland Gidon Saks
Senta Annalena Persson
Erik Ian Storey
Mary Mary Lloyd-Davies
Der Steuermann Dalands Peter Wedd
Der Holländer Bryn Terfel
Stage director David Pountney
Set designer Robert Innes Hopkins
TV director ?

It’s the Dutchman Jim, but not as we know it – despite a real galaxy of talent. With the idea that only the universe can convey eternity, David Pountney sets the opera on a space station. More Solaris than Star Trek in conception (but with James T. Kirk’s misogyny included) the place confuses everyday realities.
Mr. Pountney’s Senta is a spoilt adolescent, spending her time drawing giant eyes obsessively. ‘One certainly doesn’t have any sympathy for Senta,’ Mr Pountney says in his programme notes,…’If she hadn’t found the Dutchman, she’d have found religion. She’s at the stage of her life where she has erected (sic) an erotic substitute and …she decides to run off with this bohemian stranger. She has the missionary bug as well and wants to save him.’
No finer feelings for Senta here then and misogyny runs through the whole production. There’s a suggestion of incest between Senta and Daland and Eric is a manipulative loser whose message is clearly ‘Leave me, and I’ll kill myself.’ By Act III, the women have been dressed up as Barbie dolls and are gang-raped by the spacemen sailors. Your salt-sprayed romance, this is not.
If the sets imply alienating illusion then they certainly make a job of it. Beneath a platform of girders and scaffolding, converging screens show video clips of a cosmonaut training camp in Kazakhstan or else giant blow-ups of The Dutchman and Senta’s faces. The screens open and close relentlessly to reveal women plaiting fibre optic cables, whirling inner sets with random furnishings and even more back projections of the camp or the faces in which the nostrils seem excessively prominent. The Dutchman’s treasure seems to consist of Russian telephones and his deliverance, when it arrives, is a parched desert scene like the Trinity bomb site.
Metaphor stretched this far gets to snapping very quickly and the sets change so often that the result is dizzying. The singers look bewildered and though the Dutchman finds Senta after infinite voyaging, their meeting is based on delusion, without human ideal or sacrifice. They sing their Act II duet miles apart and don’t dare look at each other, not even for a second. Their projected images do that for them and we can hardly help but get the point. Even so, it’s tedious.
Which is a minor tragedy because the singing is phenomenal. Bryn Terfel is a commanding Dutchman, showing once again his aptitude for Wagner and his deserved special status among singers. Annalena Persson is equally beguiling – hers is another effortless voice, capable of anything asked of it – and she’s a fine actress too, both vocally and physically, coping easily with Senta’s spoiled brat character. Gidon Saks (Daland) and Peter Wedd (Steersman) were also in good fettle vocally on Friday although Ian Storey’s Eric felt slightly under-powered.
The WNO chorus sang with tremendous energy and Carlo Rizzi’s conducting (after a less than thrilling overture) was steady and safe enough, though hardly electrifying.
But this straight-through performance (there are no intervals as Wagner intended) is a must for all opera lovers. Listening with closed eyes may be helpful.

Bill Kenny

The Guardian

Where Wagner boldly goes

Launching The Flying Dutchman into outer space succeeds, thanks to Bryn Terfel

The Flying Dutchman Welsh National Opera, Millennium Centre, Cardiff, Wednesday to 3 March, then touring.
On the cover of Welsh National Opera’s programme for its new version of The Flying Dutchman is a faux-naif nightscape reducing the universe to one-quarter sea, three-quarters brooding sky, dotted with white objects too large to be stars. Observant opera-goers might be forgiven for thinking the (uncredited) artist has got his (or her) proportions wrong, especially in the case of a work so steeped in the maritime. In fact, the picture is a clue to director David Pountney’s characteristically bold new take on Wagner’s first great meditation on solitude and redemption.
Space, to Pountney, has these days replaced Wagner’s sea in the collective imagination as ‘an image of the ultimately lonely, desolate place in which someone might be condemned to wander aimlessly’. Such is the plight of the legendary Dutchman, cursed to sail the high seas forever unless he can seize a fleeting chance, once every seven years, to find the love of a faithful woman.
When last he directed this opera, on the huge floating stage at the Bregenz festival in Austria, Pountney had to avoid the temptation to use real ships on the lake as he could not rely on real weather to reflect the shifting moods of Wagner’s music. So he internalised the Dutchman’s quest, setting it in an abstract house, ‘the house of his mind’.
This remains largely true in this new staging, with no less a mind than Bryn Terfel’s returning home to Wales, and the company where he began his career, to make his debut as the Dutchman in honour of WNO’s 60th birthday. The trouble, as he roams space for two-and-a-half uninterrupted hours, is that so much of Wagner’s music is still explicitly, all too audibly, about the sea.
Undeterred, Pountney reinforces his mise-en-scene with video images he came across by chance in Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum – pictures by sisters Jane and Louise Wilson of a crumbling Soviet space training centre in Kazakhstan. He then commissioned them to film extreme, often uncomfortably so, close-ups of Terfel and the girl who might just end his protracted quest.
Projected on to giant screens through which the two interact, these suggest that each may be a figment of the other’s imagination, or at least someone other than they seem. Given that the girl is a dreamy adolescent in love with the romantic idea of the Dutchman, and that he sees her purely as a means of escape from his plight, this adds up to an effective variant on the over-familiar use of video images onstage, even if it does neither soloist any cosmetic favours.
It also turns the evening into a collision of archetypes rather than the conventionally torrid human drama. Roaming around a central platform of the girders so loved by this director (and too many others), rarely interacting except to each other’s phantom images, rarely even touching for a couple supposedly in love, the two central figures take on dream-like dimensions of fantasy and illusion that cumulatively suit their roles in this otherworldly piece.
And they are majestically performed, Terfel’s trademark snarls and gloriously rich baritone more than matched by the glacial beauty and sonorous reach of Swedish soprano Annalena Persson as Senta. Where he maintains a lofty detachment, singing to her projected image (or even his own) more than her corporeal self, she hurls herself towards her new-found destiny with as much physical as vocal commitment.
This involves the summary dumping of her childhood sweetheart, Eric, whose impossible longings and self-righteous indignation are touchingly captured by British tenor Ian Storey. You cannot imagine this wimp ever seeming an adequate son-in-law to Senta’s scheming father, Daland, the unscrupulous materialist as powerfully enacted as sung by Israeli bass Gidon Saks.
A sensitive director of singers, with a sure enough sense of theatre to lend central moments a duly celestial stillness, Pountney cannot resist the occasional postmodernist intrusion. Where his own synopsis of the plot has Daland’s crew becoming ‘increasingly aggressive and provocative’, for instance, he decks out a female chorus of all shapes and sizes in tediously unoriginal Barbie doll wigs to become the victims of a drunken gang-rape.
The childish graffito that Senta draws when singing of her love for the Dutchman is, by contrast, a clever conceit reminding us that she is a young woman way out of her depth in this saga, pimped by a greedy father to a lost soul who cares only about her fidelity.
It’s an unremittingly bleak scenario, rendered all the bleaker by its transference from the foaming seas of Wagner’s imagination to the boundless space of Pountney’s. His decision to dispense with an interval, let alone the usual two, bolsters the epic scale of the work without quite turning it into an endurance test. But it also deprives the audience of the chance to work out exactly what’s going on with a quick flick through the programme over a welcome drink.
I have said it before – and I’ll say it again – it should never be necessary to read the programme to grasp what’s happening in any theatre, operatic or otherwise. In this case, however, it sure helps, for all Pountney’s protestations that his meaning should be ‘completely understandable from what you see in front of you’.
Those who don’t understand the sudden descent of spacemen towards the end, or the fibre-optic bulbs being manufactured by the female chorus, might even take the first video-projected images of some derelict institution to be a topical reference to Abu Ghraib. Fear not. Once you grasp that we’re all wafting around the Milky Way, rather than being subjected to yet another stage protest about some dire contemporary hellhole, everything will gradually fall into place. Think of space as an ocean and Wagner’s surging music will weave its magic. Succumb to Pountney’s maverick vision and these world-class performers will help you understand why even early Wagner has a cult following.
With the impressive Carlo Rizzi in the pit, this exemplary ensemble is blessed with distinguished support from WNO’s fine chorus and house orchestra, every stitch in Wagner’s rich tapestry meticulously revealed, if, at times, underplayed for the sake of the onstage voices.
It may have got off to a slow start on the first night, but this is a reading which is bound to grow in confidence as the show moves from Cardiff to London, Birmingham and Bristol, where Robert Hayward takes over from Terfel and continues with the role in Milton Keynes, Liverpool and Swansea. If the visuals don’t grab you, the aurals surely will.

Anthony Holden

The Telegraph

Triumphant Terfel flies in to the rescue

Welsh National Opera’s new Flying Dutchman comes loaded with promise, directed by David Pountney and starring the Welsh opera divinity Bryn Terfel, making his debut in a role that he seems born to play.
My indisposed colleague Rupert Christiansen points out in his invaluable Pocket Guide to Opera the wonderful staging opportunities offered by Wagner’s earliest opera, an 1843 creation closer in spirit to Giselle or Faust than to his later operas.
There are elemental storms, encounters between diabolical and human realms, and a sensitive girl drawn to a fantasy lover who may or may not be in her dreams – cue designers’ best fancies.
Pountney appetisingly explains in the programme how inspired he was by the video-art of Jane and Louise Wilson, shot in a rusting Soviet space centre in Kazakhstan, and the idea of the cursed Dutchman as a sort of forgotten spaceman is certainly attractive.
More controversial (remembering the piercing sympathy of such past Sentas as Julia Varady) is his view of Senta as a shallow adolescent whose random sexual signals happen to pick up the spaceman when he’s in range. Well, if the deeper fantasy can still work that way, why not sacrifi ce the fl imsy romance? Besides, there is Terfel, whose staggering talent for evoking pity and terror makes this Dutchman an entirely fascinating figure, against all the odds. The voice whispers to itself as powerfully as it dominates the tempests in the music, the presence is marvellously human and conscious.
Terfel’s sensibility saves the show, which I found ponderous, quaint, dramatically maverick and musically perverse. It’s a dull old idea to supplant dreams and incredibilities by clumsy social psychology. The set is a steel scaffold with video walls that shift about, more Office World than Starship Enterprise.
Characters dressed grimly like gulag officials walk miles to avoid each other, particularly when being intimate, and are comically at odds with Wagner’s words. True, the Wilsons’ quiet videos capture something poetically sad in the abandoned space centre, the mysterious, hulking missiles, or the bubbling light that passes through neglected places. There are two arresting coups de théâtres, the spinning chorus and the astronautical apotheosis. Other images are laughable – the parade of gigantic eyes, the vast projection of the Dutchman and Senta’s self-conscious faces in the love duet.
Carlo Rizzi’s unexcitable first-night conducting may have been paced in volume to allow Annalena Persson’s Senta to cope with the two-and-a-halfhour stretch (no intervals in this version).
A young Swedish blonde in trousers, she has a characterful voice full of exciting squalls in the middle register, strained by quiet tone and high notes. Gidon Saks made fine impact as Daland, dapper and faintly misogynistic, strongly sung. Peter Wedd was a clarion Steersman, Ian Storey a quavery Eric. High praise to the WNO chorus, colouring in the electric question-and-answer Act 3 scene with great relish.

Ismene Brown


Bryn Terfel has not been heard at Welsh National Opera for a decade, since his performance as Nick Shadow in the company’s 1996 The Rake’s Progress. Here, his Flying Dutchman doesn’t disappoint but one singer, even one as great as Terfel, can’t a Wagner night make, and the strengths and weaknesses of this new production are more various than one might expect.

David Pountney’s staging, designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, is an infuriating mix of subtle perceptions and postmodern junk, with a musical core that somehow survives the visual onslaught. Sliding screens are configured as a ship’s prow to create a labyrinth through which the Dutchman, Senta and Daland circulate in their quest for moral and emotional contact. There’s no suggestion of sea or wind. Instead, Hopkins projects an interminable, distracting montage of often indistinct visual prompts – navigational equipment, repro antiques, phones – and close-ups of Terfel and Annalena Persson, as Senta, in various states of hope and despair. And there are the Eyes, challenging us to interpret while the music flies in one Ear and out the Other.

Pountney, however, is too much of a musician to ignore Wagner for long, and he respects his singers. He knows when to give space, how to integrate movement with emotional density, how to absorb stylistic inconsistencies. He handles the ghastly Erik (Ian Storey), that refugee from early Romantic opera, with tact. By insisting on Senta’s affection for him, he makes sense both of her Dutchman obsession and of the Dutchman’s distrust of her motives. It’s only a pity that Storey sings and acts so one-dimensionally.

Pountney is also excellent in the Daland-Dutchman scenes, in the way, for instance, the Dutchman turns his back on Daland’s (the admirable Gidon Saks) chatter. Such details perfectly reflect the vacillations of the music, and it’s Pountney’s innate feel for these issues of texture and style that give his staging its real, possibly lasting, sinew.

Through all this, Terfel sings incomparably, and Persson, less reliable in timbre, is still a moving Senta. Peter Wedd is an ardent Steersman, and the chorus are their sparkling selves, despite the usual ordeal by costume. Carlo Rizzi binds it all into a coherent arch of full-blown Wagner: no mean feat in the circumstances.

Financial Times

It is ironic that the most hyped shows often turn into the most hollow successes. That certainly applies to Welsh National Opera’s new “Dutchman”.
With Bryn Terfel, Wales’s home-grown opera hero, as its salesman, it can hardly fail. All his performances – he is leaving the production halfway through the tour – are already sold out. It is as if the very fact of his long-awaited reappearance on the Cardiff stage, and his role-debut as Wagner’s tortured anti-hero, should be enough to make us starry-eyed.

We are surely right to celebrate Terfel’s prodigious gifts in repertoire the opera world has long been urging him to claim as his own. Nothing in this performance contradicts the impression already gleaned elsewhere that he has reached the perfect age for Wagner’s chunky bass-baritones, to which his bear-hug timbre and wonderfully articulate declamation are so well suited.
And it is generous of him to return to his “home” company, with which he made his professional debut in 1990, when he could be earning much more elsewhere. But this production does him no favours.
It upstages his singing, smothers his personality and turns his Dutchman into a nobody. Terfel has little chance to express himself.
WNO’s first mistake was to import a production rather than create a purpose-built vehicle for Terfel. David Pountney’s Zurich staging is one of this brilliant director’s more infuriating essays, better suited to the experimental, high-turnover environment of a mid-European theatre than the UK.
In his attempt to find a modern resonance, Pountney ignores Wagner’s maritime setting. In its place comes the idea of outer space as the lonely, desolate place to which we might imagine the Dutchman being condemned to wander round aimlessly.
Well yes, c’est une idée, but it comes across as one of those awful directorial conceits that takes no account of character or dramatic consistency. The stage is dominated by a set of sliding screens on to which are projected film clips of a Soviet-era space station and close-ups of the Dutchman’s and Senta’s eyes – courtesy of the Wilson sisters, whose pretentious “video installations” are fast becoming an opera cliché. Our attention is constantly diverted by images of out-of-date sky-lab hardware and vacant human expression, while a soundtrack of Wagner’s opera plays somewhere on the periphery.
Daland and the Dutchman communicate not so much from different ships as distant planets. Abstract or realist? Narrative or symbolic? It is such a mess that Pountney’s metaphysical space probe never achieves blast-off. And by resorting to gang rape in the Act 3 party scene, which is a cheap audience titillator, he betrays how little even he believes in his trashy concept.
But Bryn – weren’t he not just fantastic? I only began to believe so at the end, when he seized the centre-stage and let rip with the histrionic magnetism we know he is capable of. His Senta, Annalena Persson, is equally short-changed by the production but serves notice of a strong, if not beautiful, voice. The other principals are even more anonymous than the central pair, and it is left to the WNO chorus to inject some personality into the proceedings. Carlo Rizzi conducts. His lyrical, linear approach is a valid way to treat early Wagner but it makes Der fliegende Holländersound very much of its time, rather than a statement of intent by the 19th century’s most avant-garde musical dramatist.

Andrew Clark

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