Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Der fliegende Holländer @ Royal Opera House, London

5, 9, 12, 17, 20, 24 February 2015

Bryn Terfel(Photo: Clive Barda)

Bryn Terfel
(Photo: Clive Barda)

The third outing for Tim Albery’s Der fliegende Holländer of 2009, revived here by Daniel Dooner, illustrates how two differing portrayals of a central character can put a substantially different spin on exactly the same production. When Egils Silins took the role of the Dutchman in 2011, he had an eerie ghostly presence, and it seemed as if his wish to find a lover who will release him was run very close by a simple desire to die. In contrast, Bryn Terfel, who took the role in the original production, has a far earthier persona. The causes of the character’s current position remain identical of course, but in Terfel’s portrayal the torment felt by the Dutchman seems more like world weariness, which suggests that redemption is a serious possibility, and that he does stand an outside chance of bringing himself back from the brink.

Although this comparison is not aimed at labelling one interpretation as better than the other, there is one respect in which Terfel’s approach has its advantages. Silins’ suggests that the Dutchman’s thoughts are far less on his new love than on escaping the curse, with the consequence that the love witnessed between Senta and the Dutchman seems to flow predominantly one way. Terfel, by generating a more human presence, enables there to be a greater two-way chemistry that helps us to vest greater emotional interest in the relationship.

The production was nominated for an Olivier Award in 2009, and watching how it generates a poignant atmosphere from start to finish, it is easy to see why. The Overture 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’s hull while also providing a suitable basis for the land scenes. Ladders and ropes cross the stage creating eye-catching diagonals, 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. This hints at the ghostly mystique of the scenario, but also serves more specific purposes. The stage is so vast that even someone with the presence of Terfel would struggle to fill the area on his own. By dimming the lights, so that during ‘Die Frist ist um’ the Dutchman acts as a sole beacon of light in a void of darkness, all problems are overcome.

Similarly, in the Dutchman’s main encounter with Senta, a single hanging lamp provides the main source of illumination. This prop makes the meeting feel akin to an interrogation, albeit a mild one, which is entirely fitting since the Dutchman is ultimately ascertaining whether Senta will be true forever. This production will be broadcast live to cinemas on 24 February and there is every reason to believe that it will work very well on screen. The lighting and other effects should make the transition, while the scenes that depend on just one or two individuals could prove highly effective when viewed in close-up.

Peter Rose is a likeable Daland. As with Stephen Milling in 2011 we can appreciate that his eagerness to marry Senta to the Dutchman derives from a basic calculation as to the benefits, but this helps us to see him not as an ogre but simply as hearty and human. By virtue of the different way in which the Dutchman is played, however, the relationship between the pair feels quite different. Silins and Milling’s portrayals presented a contrast between the ‘spiritual’ and ‘secular’, while Terfel and Rose feel more like two men who discuss things on the same level.

Ed Lyon, also currently appearing in L’Ormindo at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, is a superb Steersman who alongside revealing an excellent tenor voice throws himself more completely than most into the drunken revelries (and in this production splashing) in Act III. Catherine Wyn-Rogers is a class act as Mary, while Michael König gives a good performance as Erik while still coming across as a little lacklustre and wooden. This may well be deliberate as it is legitimate to give the character these traits, but the best Eriks are surely those who one can feel are actually a match for the Dutchman.

The highest accolades, however, go to Adrianne Pieczonka as Senta. She has a tough act to follow in the form of Anja Kampe who assumed the role in 2009 and 2011, but Pieczonka’s voice is vibrant, stirring and spiritual. She also maintains evenness of tone throughout, however, and lines are always followed through to good effect. Her performance of the ballad almost makes time stand still, and the expressions on the faces of the female chorus as they listen attentively surely mirror those of the audience. Her sensitive acting also makes the Dutchman’s final decision seem less ridiculous and arbitrary than normal. As Erik pleads his case, it is possible to see how Pieczonka’s simple expressions of sympathy towards him could be interpreted as something else. Andris Nelsons’ conducting is slick, sharp and entirely appropriate, and all of the choruses – including the positively chilling ghosts’ chorus – are in very fine voice.

This production will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 23 February at 7.30pm, and live to cinemas across the UK and abroad on 24 February. For details of participating venues and all screenings in the Royal Opera House’s 2014/15 Live Cinema Season click here.

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