English National Opera – The Flying Dutchman [James Creswell, Orla Boylan, Clive Bayley, Stuart Skelton & Edward Gardner]

Der fliegende Holländer – Romantic Opera in one act to a libretto by the composer after Heinrich Heine’s Aus den Memoiren des Herren von Schnabelewopski [sung in the English translation by David Pountney with English surtitles]

Daland – Clive Bayley
Steersman – Robert Murray
The Dutchman – James Creswell
Senta – Orla Boylan
Mary – Susanne Tudor-Thomas
Erik – Stuart Skelton

Senta as a young girl – Aoife Checkland [acting role]

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Edward Gardner

Jonathan Kent – Director
Paul Brown – Designer
Mark Henderson – Lighting designer
Denni Sayers – Choreography
Nina Dunn – Video designer

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 28 April, 2012
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Robert Murray as The Steersman, with Aoife Checkland and James Creswell as The Dutchman (Der fliegende Holländer, ENO, April 2012). Photograph: Robert WorkmanEdward Gardner and the English National Opera Orchestra, on blistering form, launched into the Overture with a force and immediacy that augured well for this first-night performance of The Flying Dutchman, newly directed by Jonathan Kent. There was some telling video imagery of storm-tossed water and the image of a large multi-paned window, culminating in a representation of an old-fashioned sailing ship riding the tempest. As Senta’s leitmotifs wove into the orchestra we also had a telling image of her as a young child being left by her father Daland as he went to sea. The lack of emotional interaction was evident and the gift of the storybook with the Dutchman’s tale therein was the seed that started Senta’s obsessive fantasising about a fulfilling romantic liaison and her adult emotional repression. So far so good – there have been many other productions of The Flying Dutchman that have put the dramatic focus on Senta’s psychology. This can make it harder for the singer portraying the Dutchman himself to retain the audience’s sympathy. In Kent’s staging this trap is largely avoided thanks to Paul Brown’s designs and Mark Henderson’s atmospheric lighting, which makes the scene changes fluid and clear, and the director also allows the principals space to deliver without distracting stage-business.

James Creswell as The Dutchman & Orla Boylan as Senta (Der fliegende Holländer, ENO, April 2012). Photograph: Robert WorkmanOrla Boylan’s assumption of Senta, one of the most-demanding of Wagner’s soprano roles, is distinguished. If she perhaps does not possess the open-throated and vibrant quality of some of the character’s most-famous interpreters, she sang with rare control of nuances and dynamics and unfailing musicality. She was compelling in her depiction of the almost-schizophrenic Senta, highlighting why she is such a social outcast in the too-close-knit community. Her ‘Ballad’ was secure and intense – just as it should be. In particular her non-interaction with Stuart Skelton’s passionate and frustrated Erik was powerfully portrayed. Skelton (replacing Julian Gavin) sang this tricky role with a lyricism that brought Erik to life: indeed, it is hard to recall a recent interpreter who has sung the part with such beauty and intensity.

Clive Bayley’s avaricious and stolid Daland cleverly avoided making the old sailor the traditional genial father, and was much more sinister as a result. Bayley sang with his usual incisive tone and perfect diction – an object-lesson in how to sing the English language with clarity. Whether even this father would have left his daughter to be gang-raped by his drunken sailors remains questionable. It was at this point that the production goes rather of the theatrical boil and resorts to gratuitous shock tactics. Senta’s suicide was not the most convincing moment either.

James Creswell was a strong Dutchman, his warm and focussed bass-baritone easily reaching into the far corners of the house and he too had excellent enunciation. He remained a shady presence; most likely a figment of Senta’s fevered imagination. However, his narrations were vivid. He and Boylan were very effective in duet.

The ENO Chorus was on great from – the men singing lustily, and the sonic effects (live and amplified) of the Dutchman’s crew as they invaded the sailors’ revels had powerful impact. The ladies, here not spinning but factory-workers making ‘ship-in bottle’ souvenirs (the Dutchman’s ship) were also strong, led by the sullen Mary of Susanne Tudor-Thomas.

The musical performance is very satisfying, primarily because of the fine singing of the principals and the exhilarating account of the orchestral score: well-worth a ticket for these alone. Edward Gardner kept the momentum up throughout (aided by using the no-interval version) and even those occasional moments when Wagner’s inspiration flags did not register as section. The brass was on tremendous form, the oboes wonderfully eerie. The production, generally rewarding, may settle down, the latter third gaining the tension so enthralling in the earlier parts of the staging.

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