Der fliegende Holländer

Andris Nelsons
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
24 February 2015
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
DalandPeter Rose
SentaAdrianne Pieczonka
ErikMichael König
MaryCatherine Wyn-Rogers
Der Steuermann DalandsEd Lyon
Der HolländerBryn Terfel
Stage directorTim Albery
Set designerMicheal Levine
TV directorRoss MacGibbon

This was an interesting first-night for Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. From a musical perspective the performance was determined to present and place the work firmly in the German Romantic tradition of Weber and Marschner, composers who both wrote operas (respectively Der Freischütz and Der Vampyr) involving the supernatural. If it did not quite come off entirely it was because such an approach needs a visual complement a little more fantastical than Tim Albery’s rather earthbound 2009 production offers.

However, there were moments where even the most-seasoned Wagnerian would be compelled to think some facets of the work afresh, and also passages where Andris Nelsons, the ROH Orchestra and in particular the Gentlemen of the Chorus unleashed a heady mix of the elemental. This was particularly the case when the sailors taunt the invisible crew of the ship and are then surprised by its eerie emergence from the shadows. Elsewhere the musical reading was notable for its restraint and for allowing the singers the opportunity to really shape their phrases and use dynamics and text to dramatic point.

Bryn Terfel was making a welcome return in the title role and his singing was both subtle and supple. The world-weariness of the character was painted well vocally, and the moments of stillness and silence were telling and enhanced the portrayal enormously. The interpretation is a bleak one – and valid. In the tricky and taxing role of Senta Adrianne Pieczonka’s silvery soprano has developed more warmth at its core, and it now carries more emotional depth. How wonderful to hear the ‘Ballad’ without snatched high notes – and instead to hear the phrases so sensitively shaped and coloured. As an actress she is also affecting with her very expressive eyes. Some may prefer Senta to be more haunted, visionary or even fanatical but this is a refreshingly restrained interpretation.

Peter Rose was an excellent Daland, making much of the text and infusing a little gentle humour. Michael König was a solid Erik. The voice is not particularly big but his phrasing was notable. In the smaller roles we had Ed Lyon as a characterful Steersman, fresh of voice and very much at the centre of the action, and Catherine Wyn-Rogers was luxury casting for Mary.

When appropriate Nelsons allowed his forces to indulge their full-throttle playing, but the more gentle and emotional writing was played with much sweetness, making Wagner’s scoring sound more nuanced than normal. Strings and woodwinds in particular made their mark. Tempos were on the measured side, and just occasionally there was a sense of the singers wanting to move-on a little.

Michael Levine’s evocative sets still impress and looked splendid under David Finn’s subtle lighting. For the most part Daniel Dooner’s revival direction kept the action clear – although Albery’s rather unimaginative and almost perfunctory realisation of the ending does rather take the wind out the show’s sails.

Striking a nice balance between traditional ‘curtain down’ and modern ‘curtain up’ performances of overtures, Tim Albery’s production of the The Flying Dutchman opened with an abstract ballet of movement and light on grey sheet during the orchestral introduction. Ripples passed across it, more or less agitated in keeping with the character of the music, and gradually a sweeping beam (as if from a lighthouse) became more prominent, forecasting the redemption to come. Both the greyness and the use of light were prominent in a sparse production which failed to convince completely, despite strong performances from the principals and good support from the rest of the cast.

The curtain rose on a minimalist set: initially, it represented a ship-deck, with a sharp upwards curve on stage left for the prow, but the level of abstraction was such that it could later serve as different locations on the Norwegian shore without straining credibility. For the Act II spinning scene, a factory-like row of machines was lowered into place, while the lovers’ scene afterwards required just two chairs in the foreground. A panel opened up in Act III, revealing a down-at-heel alcove bar where the choral duel between the crews took place, with a small strip of water downstage in which the Steersman splashed around. The final scene took place near a gangway, which was raised as the despairing Dutchman left (Senta briefly dangled from this before dropping back to earth).

Given the minimalist props, David Finn’s lighting played an important role in creating the atmosphere. It was dimly lit for the most part, with some nice touches such as the sinister shadow suggesting the arrival of the Dutchman’s ship at the end of scene 1. The greenish fluorescence when the Flying Dutchman’s crew were singing in Act III lent them the necessary touch of supernatural weirdness. Constance Hoffman’s costumes were mostly unmemorable, giving a near-contemporary feel to the whole without any obvious payoff.

Some carelessness with regard to details in the production was irritating. For instance, Senta is supposed to sing her ballad while gazing on the Dutchman’s portrait, replaced here by a model of his ship. While this was not a major problem in itself, it made her start of recognition on seeing the legendary figure in the flesh somewhat odd (then again, she actually had her back to him when she ‘saw’ his dramatic silhouette upstage, so verisimilitude was a low priority). Moreover, the model ship in no way conformed to the explicit description of its ‘blood-red sails and black mast’ given in the ballad. The staging of the ending was also rather unconvincing. Wagner’s problematic instructions require the heroine to leap Tosca-like to her death, upon which the Dutchman’s ship sinks into the sea and the ‘transfigured forms’ of the two lovers are seen to ascend in glory. Here, Senta simply staggered and collapsed with the model of the ship in her arms, a downbeat close rather at odds with the soaring music.

Bryn Terfel took on the title role when this production was first given in 2009, and he showed his trademark mixture of power and sensitivity in the first two acts of this revival (the big narration in Act I was particularly fine). However, a little tiredness seemed to have crept in by Act III, leaving his tone sounding less velvety than usual. Adrianne Pieczonka was a free-voiced Senta, with the warmth and strength of tone necessary to soar over the orchestra. Her ballad, the core number of the opera, was convincingly characterised, although verse 3 was pulled back in tempo too much for my taste, nearly grinding to a standstill before snapping back for the ‘Hui’ keening.
In the smaller roles, Peter Rose was a bluff Daland, making us smirk at his cupidity as he barters his daughter for the Dutchman’s treasure. As Erik, Michael König sounded rather pinched to start with (the contrast with Pieczonka in their scenes together did him no favours), but improved considerably over the course of the performance, and delivered a convincing cavatina in the last act. Catherine Wyn-Rogers was a secure Mary, and Ed Lyon did well as the Steersman.

A few places of imperfect coordination between orchestra and chorus left one with the feeling that Nelsons was pushing a slightly intractable group of singers. The female singers in particular sounded a little wobbly in tone in the Spinning number. The orchestra was solid, although not faultless. Nelsons cut an active figure on the podium, and struck a nice balance between preserving momentum and giving space for dramatic details.

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