Anja Kampe’s sensational house debut as Senta brings some much-needed vitality to Tim Albery’s otherwise dour production of Der fliegende Holländer. She is one of the most thrilling Wagnerian sopranos to be heard in London for years.
This was a big night for the Royal Opera. Not only had top-priced tickets tipped over the £200 threshold for the first time for a standard performance, but there was a plethora of house debuts, and after his non-appearance in The Ring, Bryn Terfel was back in the house in the title role.
The production was in the capable hands of Tim Albery, but this usually innovative director seems to be on a bit if a downer of late. Hot on the heels of his unremittingly depressing production of Boris Godunov at ENO, comes this equally bleak version of Wagner’s stormy opera.
Opting for the ‘Dresden’ version of the score adds to the bleakness as the ‘redemption’ motive that Wagner included at the close of the overture and opera is ditched in favour of a far blunter, harsher ending and as there was no redemption in the staging, the Dutchman climbs the gang-plank to his spectral ship whilst Senta, motionless, clutching a model of a galleon to her bosom, expires alone on stage, left a pervading sense of nihilism.
Maybe Albery needs a course of Prozac, especially as the preciously few dramatic moments, the rain drenched drop curtain during the overture, the appearance of the spectral ship and Senta’s ballad, tended to grow organically out of Michael Levine’s ingenious designs than Albery’s direction.
Levine fills the stage with a vertiginously-challenged section of a ship. At the front of the stage is a narrow strip of water that characters at times paddle in or later on fall in, whist at the back several large orbital lights provide the atmospheric lighting that is brilliantly evocative throughout (David Finn). There’s a real coup-de-theatre when a bank of sewing machines descends from the flies for the spinning chorus, whilst the appearance of the Dutchman’s spectral crew likewise sets the pulses racing later on, but such moments of theatrical frisson are in too short supply.
The vocal honours of the evening go to Anja Kampe’s enthralling portrayal of Senta. A character deeply traumatised from the start, she navigates the fiendish range of the Ballad with consummate ease and her fulsome soprano grows in confidence as the evening progresses. Hers is one of the most thrilling Covent Garden debuts for many a season and her first Isolde at Glyndebourne this summer is a mouth-watering prospect.
There was able support from John Tessier as the Steersman (another debut) whilst Hans-Peter König was less of an old buffer as Daland than is often the case. Torsten Kerl did what he could with the thankless role of Erik, whilst the augmented chorus were superb. In fact Albery’s utterly dependable handling of the chorus was one of the evening’s unequivocal strengths.
Regrettably Bryn Terfel seemed out of sorts as the Dutchman. Whilst he produced some hushed introspective singing in his opening monologue, later on he resorted to hectoring and seemed disengaged with the proceedings as a whole. There were flashes of inspiration but they were too few.
Marc Albrecht kept a steady hand on the tiller and drew accomplished playing from the orchestra, but despite some significant strengths, overall the first night failed to live up to expectations.