ENO’s new staging of The Flying Dutchman, using the original continuous version of 1841, marks the debuts of both director Jonathan Kent and conductor Edward Gardner in a Wagner production.
Musically the results are first rate. Commencing with an urgent, stormy account of the overture, Gardner communicates both elemental power and delicacy. The music’s metaphysical side might be somewhat underplayed, but Gardner brings a compensating forward sweep and sense of purpose. The playing of the orchestra is excellent, with warm and silken strings and consistently impressive brass, and the choral singing is vibrant and incisive.
The American bass James Creswell brings a strong voice and clear articulation to the role of the Dutchman, although perhaps too beholden to the character’s mysterious and stoic image to be fully engaging. Orla Boylan portrays Senta with enormous gusto and conviction throughout, her singing rising to impassioned heights in Act III. Clive Bayley brings exemplary musicality and diction to his portrayal of Daland, highlighting the character’s mercantile nature, while Stuart Skelton finds a sense of naivety and youthful ardour in his portrayal of Erik.
By contrast, the staging becomes increasingly confused as it progresses. At the beginning of Act I, we see a young girl sitting in a bed against the back projection of a stormy sea. The interior of Daland’s ship and his crew gradually becomes visible, and the action reveals that the girl is the young Senta. The projection of the sea onto the ship and its crew is no doubt meant to suggest a dream or a premonition, although the flickering light gives them a spectral quality more in keeping with the nature of the Dutchman’s crew. The prow of the Dutchman’s ship subsequently appears at the rear of the stage, and the Dutchman himself, dressed in Victorian garb, appears in the bed vacated by the young Senta. The use of the bed is reminiscent of Stefan Herheim’s recent staging of Parsifal at Bayreuth, although without the latter’s virtuosic stagecraft. Nevertheless, the presentation of Act I is visually arresting and, for the most part, supports the dramatic narrative.
Act II opens with Senta, now an adult, rising from the same bed we saw earlier. The setting is a factory making souvenirs (rather than Wagner’s domestic room with spinning machines) and the singing text is adjusted to suit, including a reference to Erik as an office worker rather than a hunter, although his subsequent appearance is that of security guard. The contemporary dress and setting not only appears inconsistent with that of Act I, but somehow brings a sense of ordinariness and even sentimentality to the scene with Senta and Dutchman.
Act II is a model of restraint, however, compared to the eccentricities of Act III. For the celebrations at the start, many of the sailors and their girls have acquired fancy dress and are cavorting as if in a West End musical than a Wagner opera. During this scene, Senta is teased by the revellers and puzzlingly almost becomes the victim of a gang rape, an event halted only by the arrival of the Dutchman’s ship. The singing of the Dutchman’s crew is heard through speakers, but the sound is unpleasantly loud and metallic, and the result undermines any sense of interaction with the Norwegian crew. The final scene between Senta, Erik and the Dutchman is confusing, and Senta’s use of a broken wine bottle to commit suicide is unconvincing.
Altogether this is a pity, as there are many impressive aspects to ENO’s new production, not least its musical values, but the staging as a whole ultimately lacks coherence.