In the accompanying programme, Longborough Festival Opera’s Music Director Anthony Negus describes the changes that Wagner made to Der fliegende Holländer between 1841, when the work’s first incarnation was completed, and 1860, when the version that is almost always performed today was created. While many of the alterations related to such things as reducing the role of the trombones in order to ‘humanise’ the score, the overall result represented a philosophical shift so that the 1860 version was able to conjure ‘the redemptive ending that Wagner always wanted, but was not yet ready to compose in his pre-1848 period’.
In Thomas Guthrie’s new production, Negus’ intricate understanding of the score manifests itself in a masterly performance from the orchestra, in which it becomes clear to see why lines are played in certain ways. The result is a deep and multi-faceted rendering of the score so that, for example, the Overture allows for the clear delineation of line, even in its frequent pursuit of a thick sound that positively rumbles. Visually, this introduction is accompanied by Senta reading her book about the Dutchman before exiting at the end of the Overture’s first rendering of her ‘ballad’. This reflects Guthrie’s balanced approach to the staging in which there is visual interest, but never so much as to prevent the music from speaking uninhibited.
Against a backdrop of a stormy sky, much of the staging’s infrastructure is provided by the people themselves. For example, when the weather forces Daland’s crew to divert to a port away from home, we see the men traipse across the stage, their heads bowed low. As they do so the women cross behind them holding a church and their houses showing how close the sailors are to their loved ones when they are forced to sail on past them. Wagner specified that on the Dutchman’s entry his gait should be ‘proper to sea-folk on first treading dry land after a long voyage’, and here the effect is enhanced by having his crew enter alongside him in a similar manner. In the absence of huge ships, which this stage could never hope to accommodate, these prove useful devices for providing a sense of time and place.
Judged by the costumes the women wear when dressing up for the men’s return, the time would seem to be the 1960s. However, more important than the specific decade is the fact that the community is quite traditional, though the era broadly modern. Thus the yellow waterproofs of Daland’s crew contrast starkly with the seemingly 19th century garb of those on the ghost ship. In this way, the Dutchman may have come from Wagner’s own era with time being frozen for him and his crew from the moment he was cursed.
The choruses sing well, with the men’s contribution to Act III being particularly strong. They remain precise and together, while still handing their sound the right sense of boisterousness for the occasion and indulging in some reasonably impressive dancing. It is always good when a production includes a ghosts’ chorus that can actually confront Daland’s crew. However, given the expense of employing and costuming everyone for just a few minutes, it is unfeasible for the majority of companies who tend to amplify a few offstage voices for ghostly effect. This production also employs this basic technique, but carries off the moment as strongly as it ever might be. It would be wrong to give away the precise device used, but it alludes to the idea that the ghosts are communicating to the living sailors across time as well as space. The latter’s frightened reactions under Ben Ormerod’s lighting are also highly effective.
In comparison with the scenes of mass activity, those that involve just two characters fare less well as the typically lengthy encounters sometimes see the performers repeating the same expressions and gestures several times. However, this difficulty is more than compensated for by the overall strength of the principals’ performances. As Senta, Kirstin Sharpin’s soprano glistens as it can be imbued with the utmost sensitivity or the greatest passion and strength. Simon Thorpe presents a convincing portrayal of a Dutchman whose desire to find a woman who will release him initially only just beats a simple wish to die. His performance of ‘Die Frist ist um’ feels a little rough, although it perfectly captures his torment, but his encounters with Senta see his bass-baritone take on a far smoother quality. Richard Wiegold reveals a magnificent bass as Daland, Jonathan Stoughton thoroughly convinces as an Erik who is consumed by desperation to the point of obsession, while William Wallace’s Steersman and Carolyn Dobbin’s Mary are cast from strength. Longborough’s new Ring Cycle begins next year with Das Rheingold, but in the meantime this presentation of Wagner’s first mature opera makes a welcome addition to the festival’s exploration of his earlier creations.
Longborough Festival Opera’s 2018 season continues until 2 August. For details of all events and tickets visit the Longborough Festival Opera website.