The Royal Opera – Der fliegende Holländer

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

Daland – Hans-Peter König
Steersman – John Tessier
The Dutchman – Bryn Terfel
Senta – Anja Kampe
Mary – Clare Shearer
Erik – Torsten Kerl

The Royal Opera Chorus

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Marc Albrecht

Tim Albery – Director
Michael Levine – Set designs
Constance Hoffmann – Costume design
David Finn – Lighting
Philippe Giraudeau – Movement

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 23 February, 2009
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

John Tessier as the Steersman. ©Clive BardaWagner’s “Der fliegende Holländer” is a notoriously tricky piece to bring off well requiring as it does the need to balance its vigorous and immediate score, the considerable demands on both the principal singers and chorus, and yet dazzle the audience with impressive scenic displays demanded by the stage directions. These continue to challenge creative teams with access to rather better technical possibilities than Wagner had. From its vibrant opening bars the score has an in-built pace and energy that should pin one to the seat until the final crashing chords. Yes – it is a youthful work and one that shows Wagner still developing his ideas of opera and there are uneven passages. One should not try to be too clever with it.

Although this first-night performance commenced with a vivid depiction of the stormy seas sailed by the Dutchman and his crew, the emergence of the theme associated with Senta drawn from the refrain of her later Ballad the woodwind chording was a little shaky and it sounded almost tentative. It is a strong theme and she’s a strong heroine and this did not help create that image. At times Albrecht (conducting the without-interval version) seemed to be attempting to emphasise the more romantic aspects of the work at the expense of the more elemental components, not least by making the former feel rather leisurely.

Anja Kampe as Senta. ©Clive BardaThis approach had some benefits. It certainly meant that Anja Kampe’s vocal performance of Senta was far more subtle and nuanced than is usually the case. Her singing of the Ballad was still intense but what a pleasure it was to hear some dynamic control and hence a more vivid narration of the Dutchman’s story. She has the vocal heft to let rip at the moments where this is really required, such as in the Senta/Dutchman/Erik trio of the final act. There’s nowhere for the singer to hide any deficiencies or insecurities in this part and this was an undeniably impressive assumption of a role in which many well-known sopranos have had the odd disaster. Few sopranos keep it in their repertory long either, so it was good to catch Kampe in it!

Bryn Terfel’s eagerly anticipated return to The Royal Opera in Wagner also allowed him to demonstrate that his vocal equipment is now perfect for the part with its inky and richly resonant quality allied to incisive tone and an amazing ability to illuminate and colour the text. His almost-murmured opening of “Wie aus der Ferne…” was an instance, and he captured all the Dutchman’s inner hopes, insecurities and even some anxiety by purely vocal means. Again Albrecht’s keeping the lid on the orchestra allowed much of the lyrical and introvert moments to really register that Wagner’s more mature style was already present even in this work.

Hans-Peter König as Daland, Bryn Terfel as the Dutchman (left) & Anja Kampe as Senta. ©Clive BardaAs Daland, Hans-Peter König’s warm and genial sounding bass was a distinct asset and if Torsten Kerl’s tone was slightly constricted as Erik he brought more lyricism to this ungrateful part than most interpreters can muster – particularly in the narration of his dream “Auf hohen Felsen”. Clare Shearer’s Mary was less baleful than some others have been, but she made her presence felt. John Tessier’s Steersman suffered at the start from his backward placing. The augmented Chorus sang as brilliantly and lustily as one could wish for – and the interplay between the singing of the Norwegian community and the ghostly crew of the Dutchman’s ship was thrillingly immediate.

Frustratingly though the performance stubbornly failed to take fire and here the production and direction and occasionally the conductor must shoulder the responsibility. The monumental and atmospherically lit set of Michael Levine conjured up the nautical and small community settings well enough, and the front curtain evocation of the wet and windy environments that permeate the score made a suitable if unvarying accompaniment to the Overture. The steep stage did not seem to put all the singers at their ease. What were sadly lacking were any major dramatic insights. Terfel was too often left looking out to the audience with a dour appearance or with wild haunted eyes and relying purely on his vocal means and sheer presence to depict depth and drive of character. The demonical side was very much suppressed. Kampe’s Senta was more feminine than most, but the character’s purposefulness did not emerge either. Indeed this Senta was rather more vacillating.

The staging of the desperate final scene on the gangplank to the Dutchman’s ship was perfunctory to say the least; at this point above all the character-interaction needs to be stronger than this. The emergence of the ghostly crew, well though the Chorus sang, was not as shocking as it can be. There was a lack of thrill factor – it’s a ghost story! Albrecht’s refusal to really allow the orchestra to let rip in the more tempestuous passages meant that the contrasts and counterpoint with the more conventionally romantic duets and arias was not as strong as needed; ultimately this performance felt a bit safe and tame – epithets that should not appear in a discussion of this work.

  • Further performances at 8 p.m. on February 26 and 1 (7.30 p.m.), 4, 7 (12.30 p.m.) & 10 March
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera
  • Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 30 May 2009
  • Interview with Bryn Terfel

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