When Tim Albery’s Der fliegende Holländer first appeared at the Royal Opera House in 2009, one of its main selling points was the appearance of Bryn Terfel as the Dutchman. This first revival does not boast anyone with such a high public profile, especially since Falk Struckmann is not playing the title role as originally planned, but that is no cause for concern. While the cast contains several people who only recently made their Royal Opera debuts, it is packed with as many gems as the Dutchman’s own ship.
The production was nominated for an Olivier Award in 2009, and watching how it generates a potent atmosphere from start to finish, it is easy to see why. The Overture, superbly conducted by Jeffrey Tate, sees ripples sent across, and rain appearing on, the stage curtain, thus simulating a stormy sea. When it rises, we are met with Michael Levine’s bare sloping stage that curves up at the back corners, emulating a ship while also providing a suitable basis for the land scenes. Ladders and ropes cross the stage, and it is interesting that the Dutchman first appears at the end of a long rope. On the physical level this could simply represent his means of coming ashore, but it also reveals how he is shackled to the high seas. On land, the stage is filled with rows of sewing machines and a gangway, and David Finn’s lighting is kept generally low throughout, hinting at the ghostly mystique of the scenario. In the Dutchman’s main encounter with Senta, a single hanging lamp provides the main source of illumination.
Stephen Milling is an instantly likeable Daland. It is not just the purity of tone in his rich bass voice that wins us over, but also the way in which his emotions feel very human. One can genuinely picture someone who is so close and yet so far from being home feeling as he does: annoyed and disappointed, yet hardly suicidal. Similarly, though his eagerness to marry Senta to the Dutchman derives from a basic calculation as to the benefits, this helps us to see him not as an ogre but as a hearty middle of the road human being. The net result is that Milling contrasts effectively with Egils Silins, making his Royal Opera debut as the Dutchman. Silins has an eerie ghostly presence from start to finish, his strong bass-baritone voice with a certain grit and world weariness. In his portrayal, we cant help but see just how close his desire simply to die runs to his first preference to find a lover who will release him. Towards the start the occasional phrase seems underpowered, which impacts upon enunciation, but this hardly matters.
John Tessier, who played the Steersman in 2009 although now he replaces the previously advertised John Easterlin, makes the most of his light, supple tenor instrument. Were his output to be any quieter it could become lost in the vast interior, but as things stand his is an engaging performance. Clare Shearer is an effective Mary, while Endrik Wottrich fares well in the difficult role of Erik. Just towards the end his voice feels a little strained, but he cleverly presents Erik as a strong character in his own right while simultaneously enabling us to see him in the light in which Senta paints him.
But it is one serious Wagnerian soprano who comes off best, Anja Kampe, who also played the role of Senta here in 2009. Every note is imbued not only with beautiful resonance, but also a sense of longing, mystique and love that gets right to the heart of this needy, but spiritual character. Her encounters with Silins may have one problem in that the chemistry predominantly flows one way, from her to him. Although this is partly in keeping with the characters (the Dutchman’s thoughts are less on his new love than on escaping the curse), his decision to release her proves that he genuinely cares for her, and so something in their connection as we witness it does feel limited. Nevertheless, with a strong set of soloists, and a chorus including the extra ghosts chorus on fine form, this is a notable evening.
Royal Opera’s Der fliegende Holländer will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday, 12 November 2011.