Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Der fliegende Holländer London Terfel

This Der fliegende Holländer was eagerly awaited as it hasn’t been heard at the Royal Opera House, London, since 2000. With Bryn Terfel’s return to Covent Garden as the Dutchman a full house was guaranteed.

Terfel's admirers would not have been disappointed. His voice boomed majestically, even when he had to walk carrying a heavy rope, and wade through real water at the foot of the platform. In this production, however, by Tim Albery, he wasn't really called upon to develop the Dutchman's character. As he said to one interviewer, he hasn't been challenged enough yet. He is capable, so it's a pity that it wasn't needed in Albery's concept of the opera.

At the recent ENO Boris Gudonov (see label list at right), Albery gave us Gudonov as stolid, mild-mannered bourgeois. This Dutchman is his kin, by no means a ravaged, cursed "pale man", no more haunted than Daland. Later, when his men appear, they're all neatly dressed in uniform. No way have they been roaming the oceans for centuries. Perhaps there's a rationale for this. When the Norwegians call out to the doomed ship, they face the audience in the orchestra stalls, shining torches in their faces. Is this a hidden meaning? I don't know. The production was generously supported by wealthy patrons. But then, Wagner himself was not above cocking a snoot at his benefactors. But I suspect the real reason was that the concept wasn't completely followed through.

For me, this production worked musically because it focussed on Wagner's underlying techniques, at a period when he was finding his own direction. Particularly interesting is the way he mixes the banal pop songs the sailors sing with the altogether more extreme wildness of the Dutchman's music. These songs and choruses reminded me of Der Freischütz, another tale in which happy peasants meet demonic forces. This duality runs throughout the opera, so there's constant turmoil in this music. Like the sea itself, ever churning, it's not fixed on firm ground. Wagner is moving away from established German aria-based opera to something altogether new. Marc Albrecht, the son of George, not Gerd, who conducted this opera at Covent Garden 30 years ago, focussed on the more traditional elements of the work. It's still a "numbers" piece with set vignettes and "local colour". If Albrecht didn't get the grand sweep of Wagner's later vision perhaps it's because he was focussing on his earlier influences. This performance was a reminder that Wagner was still young when he wrote it, and how far he still had to go.

But music must work with staging, and it wouldn't have been any more right for Albrecht to go for panoramic wildness any more than for Terfel to do what he might have done with a more ravaged Dutchman. Thus it was interesting to watch the Overture unfold. This is an essential part of the opera, not merely an opener, for it sets out the themes that are to come at considerable length. Here it was played against a backdrop of green light, with projections of rain on glass and vague forms flitting from left to right with minimal variation. Perhaps that's what being at sea is like, but there's a lot more development in the music, which goes through very distinct changes as it progresses.

And conflict is what the opera is about. Wagner wields leitmotivs about like weapons. Particularly wonderful is the Third Act where crosscurrents of different music are thrown against each other, with the force of violent waves. Just as there's a storm at sea in Act One, there's a storm on land in the Third, an echo of a more cosmic storm of the soul. In the Third Act, the Royal Opera House Choruses show how exceptionally good they are. They carry the intricate counter-forces with precision and committment. No denying the in this opera now. At last the production came vividly to life.

Bryn Terfel was obviously the big draw, but it's Anja Kampe who I'll remember. What a huge voice, from such a tiny frame! Maybe it's good miking, but she gave Terfel a run for his money. Again, the production downplays her inherent hysteria. She's fixated on the Dutchman long before he appears, clinging to his image like a teenage Goth obsessed by symbols of doom. Of course she's virginal and sweet but even her mates think she's a bit warped. Senta is the prototype Wagner heroine, who equates love with death, and needs to find herself through sacrificial redemption. A bit like what Wagner expected of the women in his life. Kampe should go on to do interesting things in this vein. She's singing Isolde at Glyndebourne this summer.

Please see what Mark says about this on Boulezian and also Intermezzo (link at right)
And photos

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