Sunday, 29 April 2012

Der fliegende Holländer, English National Opera, 28 April 2012

The Coliseum

(sung in English)

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

Jonathan Kent (director)
Paul Brown (designs)
Mark Henderson (lighting)
Denni Sayers (choreography)
Nina Dunn (video)

Orchestra of the English National Opera
Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Francine Merry)
Edward Gardner (conductor)

Aoife Checkland (young Senta)
Images: Robert Workman

ENO’s peculiar decision not to stage any Wagner during its 2012-13 season, that is the season in which the greater part of Wagner’s bicentenary falls, is at least mitigated by a new production of The Flying Dutchman during this preceding season. There is much to enjoy musically, though there are a few problems too, but Jonathan Kent’s production fails to cohere. Whilst resemblances to Tim Albery’s dreary production across town for the Royal Opera are doubtless coincidental – though might it not reasonably be part of a stage director’s job to inform himself of what others in his position have done? – the factory setting of the second act, the increasingly odd, yet unrevealingly odd, costumes, and apparent unwillingness or inability to listen to Wagner’s score present an unfortunate kinship.

James Creswell (The Dutchman), Orla Boylan (Senta)
Unlike Albery, Kent appears to have some ideas. The problem is more that they rarely seem properly thought through, and that they do not necessarily cohere with each other. Video now seems more or less obligatory for the Overture; it is very well done here, but is it really necessary to evoke storms visually when Wagner does pretty well for himself with the orchestra. The curtain comes up a little way in, to present a little girl, a young Senta, one presumes, reading a book, referring to the Flying Dutchman, one presumes, whilst apparently being pushed aside by her busy father. (Weird lighting made the girl appear, at least from my seat, as if she were auditioning for The Black and White Minstrel Show. I wondered what on earth was going to happen, feeling quite filled with foreboding, until I realised that she had not after all blacked up.) The timing is unclear; sometimes we appear to be vaguely contemporary, at other points a few years back, though certainly not when Wagner sets his drama. It seems that Senta therefore imagines her Dutchman from her childhood fantasies; the problem here is that in no way is this as coherently presented as when Harry Kupfer in Bayreuth and Berlin unforgettably presented the drama as her dream. Is she dreaming the rest of the drama? It does not appear so. In which case, how is it that anyone else can see the Dutchman? Most do not – a ghost, perhaps? – but Daland certainly does. How, otherwise, can he treat with this strangely nineteenth-century apparition. A more Romantic, dangerous figure might make more sense; this Dutchman, however, dresses more like a character from Jane Austen. He stands out, but not necessarily in the right way; the concept either does not work or is not adhered to consistently.

Senta surrounded by the crowd
A potentially good idea is the viciousness of the other factory workers towards Senta. She clearly does not fit in; they mock her, make her miserable. She belongs somewhere else: Wagner would surely have agreed. This continues into the third act, but alas, an apparent wish to be ‘theatrical’ undermines what might truly have intrigued and provoked. Albery too had a tawdry vision of the crew’s celebrations. Having married – or imagined marrying – the Dutchman during the entr’acte, Senta now finds herself jeered at, molested, and seemingly worse (shades perhaps of David McVicar’s ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, in which Salome’s childhood abuse is relived). The women of the community do not care; they aid and abet the events. Unfortunately, the presentation is so over the top that it becomes more ludicrous than threatening, more West End musical or perhaps television game show than serious music drama. (And The Flying Dutchman is nothing if it is not taken seriously.) Amongst the oddities we witness are a person dressed up as a parrot, lots of inflatable toys, some people with Santa Claus hats, at least one woman with a huge red hand, and a few supernumeraries whose principal function seems to be to look good when they take off their shirts. It all seems quite out of proportion to whatever we have seen before, and reeks of a desire for spectacle, of whatever sort. Not once did I have the impression that Kent was responding in any depth to the score; often he did not even respond to the words. The frankly silly dance movements flatly contradicted, yet not in an interesting way, Wagner’s writing.

Senta is then rescued by the re-appearance of the Dutchman’s crew – unfortunately rendered in amplified, recorded form: a terrible mistake – but how and why, if, and I repeat if, they do not really exist? Has she merely imagined everything? In that case, it is difficult to take seriously any claims to societal critique, at least without further guidance or refinement. As for why a spotlight suddenly swung around the theatre and focused upon a seemingly random part of the Coliseum ceiling, I simply have not the faintest idea. My abiding impression of Kent’s production, then, was of an undergraduate with a few too many ideas, who would need to be taken aside, advised to deepen his acquaintance with the work over a few years, before returning to it and deciding more clearly how to pursue one or two of those ideas. The contrast with ENO’s most recent other Wagner, Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s ‘heap of broken images’ Parsifal, is stark.

Daland (Clive Bayley)
The ENO Orchestra was on magnificent form, as fine as I can recall hearing it. As for Edward Gardner’s direction, this was a reading clearly determined to focus on dramatic excitement. There is nothing wrong with that, up to a point, but it missed Wagner’s depths. There was little of the problems with maintaining dramatic line that bedevil so many conductors – an impressive achievement for someone conducting his first Wagner opera – but the sound and drive seemed more appropriate to Verdi, or at a push perhaps to Rienzi. As so often, the Overture suffered from being driven too fast to start with and then abruptly altering to a drawn out snail’s pace. Yet once that was over with, and to the extent that one could ignore the lack of ‘German’ depth in sound quality as well as 'musico-dramatic' striving towards symphonism, there was a good deal to enjoy. Whether one should be ‘enjoying’ rather than thinking is of course another matter, but it was a relief to be spared the stopping and starting one so often endures, even in high-ranking houses. Perhaps Gardner’s conception will deepen over time. The work was performed without an interval, without the later, ‘redemptive’ halos to the conclusions of the Overture and the third act. I heartily approve, though a distinguished Wagner scholar, to whom I had been speaking on the telephone just before heading off to the Coliseum, thought otherwise. (Apparently he had advised Gardner to opt for the more ‘authentic’ version with intervals, on the basis that Wagner never performed it otherwise.)

James Creswell made for the most part a commanding Dutchman; his care with the words, here sung in David Pountney’s translation, was noteworthy. Unfortunately, Orla Boylan seemed quite miscast as Senta. It is, I know, a very difficult role, but her often squally tone often turned downright hectoring; at times, it was almost impossible not to wince. Intonation deteriorated as the work progressed too. Thank goodness, then, for a typically detailed character portrayal from Clive Bayley, despite the silly dance he was forced to perform at the end of the second act, and for the undoubted star of proceedings, Stuart Skelton as Erik. His Romantic ardour led one to sympathise as often one does not, yet he ensured that one remained aware of the character’s limitations, of his modest existence, so as to avoid the danger of thinking Senta should have thrown in her lot with him after all. Skelton’s is a fine voice, of course, but he can act too – and certainly did. Though the voices could hardly be more different, I was reminded of a production I saw in Vienna, in which Klaus Florian Vogt – the first time I heard him – quite stole the show. Despite that misguided decision concerning the Dutchman’s crew, the choral singing was, a few rough edges aside, of very high quality: weighty and yet surprisingly incisive. Would that I could say the same concerning the production. For far more interesting stagings, turn on DVD either to Kupfer from Bayreuth or to Martin Kušej’s recent production for the Netherlands Opera.


The Wagnerian said...

How I now wish I had popped along, if for no other reason than to attempt to understand the great differences in reviewer opinion. I must do so latter I suppose.

I am especially intrigued by the near "rape scene". Like you, another reviewer felt that this symbolized Senta "not fitting in"- and perhaps the dangers there of.

Yet to me it sounds suspiciously like the typical "fear of the "other" so loved and propagated by the Daily Mail: Dutchman (nice middle class "Emo" lad that he seems to be) and Senta (working class girl trying to escape the "horrors" of her working class life?) are a little bit "different", a little more "sensitive" a bit more "one of us". But then there's those dreadful "base" working class types who can't be trusted for a moment. "Rape you in your beds they would, and no doubt while claiming benefits"? Or is this unfair?

There was a truly distasteful (not for its horror which simply a rehash of poor American B Movie horror psychology) British horror movie a few years ago called "Eden Lake", that lead to a number of similar films holding this theme central - and was much loved by a lot of the "quality press". If this is indeed a subtext to Kent's production then perhaps someone should have mentioned this has been de-constructed and ridiculed a number of times since in the cinema ("Tucker & Dale vs Evil" and "Attack the block" come to mind.

But this is simply what seems to come over, indirectly, from a quick scan of the reviews. I suppose I must go and see for myself although I would be interested to hear if you think I may have, unfairly, simply "grasped the wrong end of the stick"?

Mark Berry said...

There may well be something, perhaps even a great deal to that. My fear is that it is perhaps even worse: it seemed almost just a way to appear adventurous, along the lines of, 'What shall we do now? Oh why not suggest a rape scene? That ought to impress a would-be trendy element of the audience...'.

Oliver Soden said...

Dear Mark,

Thank goodness to read this after the clutch of positive reviews that appeared this morning: I sat through most of the production with my mouth open in horror at the inept staging of utter misinterpretation. And one couldn't even close one's eyes and enjoy fully, because of the de rigeur ENO translation - from David Pountney of all people (a German speaker?. Will 'hum and thrum' really do for Summ und Brumm? This banal Wagnerese jarred oddly with poor attempts at rhyming couplets (at moments when Wagner's text doesn't rhyme) and a sort of earthy, naval, patois that was almost embarrassing.

I fear to say that from a seat very close to the stage the projections (used - overused - in Klinghoffer, Hoffman, the list is endless, and one of the easiest and most boring solutions to thorny theatrical problems) didn't work at all, juddering and messy, though I imagine they were more impressive from further back. From such a position though, it was harder not to give into Orla Boylan's performance (though such a shame about the dress...) as there seemed to be the right amount of Rausch (?) in the whites of her eyes.

I could make no sense of the half-framing device of the little-girl Senta. What I'd initially assumed to be a rather clumsy notion that Senta was 'dreaming' the opera (and thus dreaming herself as an older woman) was dashed when the child didn't re-appear after Act One; and with only one bookend, the rest is going to fall off the shelf. The only other conclusion was that the first act actually took place during Senta's childhood, meaning we had a gap of decades between Act I and II, trampling the through-composed structure of the opera and making nonsense of the libretto.

Could you work out why Erick was a lumpy security guard at the ship-in-a-bottle factory (ho ho), viewing lots of CCTV footage, on real television screens that really worked...? Evidently the opera is a comment on the nanny state as well as being a 'slice-of-life' portrayal of the hard conditions of fishing communities in modern-day Norway. (Possibly it's about paedophilia too: was I the only one who thought choosing to have the Darcey-Dutchman emerge from a six-year-old's bed was severely misguided?) Well: at least tax payer's money is going on security cameras, even at ENO.

The vulgarity and coarse ineptitude of the gang-rape scene beggared belief (Kent didn't even have the wit to stage this on the line 'Spread the sails') and was choreographed too messily even to assume the interest of a schizoid Grimesian shoal, which would still have had no place.


The Wagnerian said...

Or aggravate Wagnerians? This is common. Although I would suspect that you are correct. It seems to me, looking at the Ipod/Android app alone, that this is been marketed at those "new to opera and new to Wagner". This normally means, in the UK at least, being as condescending as possible and with an attempt to "jazz it up" (look at the ROH's new marketing campaign). But I am being unfair perhaps as I have not seen it yet.

By the way, I would have to agree with your friend about the three act version. I am not an expert as you know, but there is I believe some evidence it was written originally as a one act to fit in with the Paris Opéra. This stuff of "breaking with tradition" sounds suspiciously to me like more of Wagner's reworking of his history retrospectively. Something, as I know you are aware, he was good at. Indeed, to me it is one of his charms

Oliver Soden said...

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the ending, which seemed fatally botched to me. I suppose it is too much to ask a director to try and have 'die verklaerten Gestaleten Senta's und des Hollaender's, sich umschlungen haltend dem Meere ensteigen und aufwarts schweben'. ('verklaerten' - Isolde is 'verklert', I think...) But at the very least 'Sie sturzt sich in das Meer' should be somehow observed (the damn Meer has been projected all the way through, for God's sake). But o no: Orla Boylan seizes a wine-bottle from the party tables and stabs herself to death with the broken glass. (I'm afraid I'm rather relishing giving Kent's surprise away.) Would people put up with having Isolde do such a thing? (Probably.) This didn't appear so much a sobering comment on the impossibility of redemption, as engendering a sneaking suspicion that Kent hadn't read the original text/poem).

Wagner's theme, it seems to me, is a mythic-poetic redemption of a collective and innate longing for peace through the sacrifice of devoted love. (One thing that I did notice last night was a plethora of backward echoes, and just as the steersman could be a progenitor of Tristan's opening, can Senta's end be thought of as an embryonic liebestod/verklerung?) I don't see how The Flying Dutchman can be read, by any stretch of the imagination, as an exploration of working conditions in contemporary Norway; nor a psychological examination into the waste of a human life through suicide due to the over-active imagination of an hysteric, and the violent actions of the community within which she lives. And even if one can forget such misreadings, which one can't, the coarse ineptitude of both thought and visuals was unforgivable.

I assumed the spot-lit roof was a malfunction; the least said about the Dutchman's rubbery ship smashing through the back wall (cue Daland: 'O look! A ship!) the better: it provoked audible giggles where I was sitting.

Although a dreamer, the sort of device one was warned against in primary school, is practically ubiquitous in most opera productions now (ENO is advertising one for Vaughan William's Pilgrim's Progress I notice), in Hollander this could be actually a reasonable notion, no?: it appears to me to be a work (Jung before Jung?) hugely concerned with the dream-world as a manifestation of collective consciousness: Versank ich jetzt in wunderbares Traumen/ Was ich erblicke, ist es Wahn? (Wahn cropping up, long before Meistersinger). The problem is, or so it seems to me, that the Dutchman should not solely be Senta's dream, as he is so palpable both to Erick and to Daland (the production, as you say, was inconsistent about this); indeed Erick dreams of the Dutchman too...

Wagner even wrote (included in the programme for God's sake!) - 'The figure of the 'Flying Dutchman' is a mythic-poetic creation of the volk: a primeval trait of human nature finds the most gripping and powerful expression in this figure. In its most general significance this trait can be identified as the longing for peace in the wake of life's storms.' Jung might say the Dutchman is a metaphor for an archetype. So it makes little sense for Senta alone to be dreaming all this, even if one recognises the lines the director fastened upon. How did Kupfer reconcile focussing so much upon Senta's dreams when Wagner makes it clear he is a creation not of hers, but of the volk? Or have I misread all this dreadfully?

Oliver Soden said...

Part II - forgive me - : I imagine this has spoken, at great length, on matters of which you know and have thought more than I, so forgive me for spouting them here; the sense of helplessness one can feel at such times amidst crowds of roaring supporters is sometimes overwhelming.

Thank you for your informed and articulate review (as always)-

It occurred to me that the endless bottling of the ships was a very good metaphor for the production: how very reductive most of its ideas (hardly concepts) were. But I suppose Jonathan Kent's interview in the Guardian should have forewarned us: not only does Kent (some of whose productions I've admired greatly) think that 'it's hard to get a sense of the bond between Senta and the Dutchman) but, as he says rather smugly 'the way we've done it, it doesn't matter who the Dutchman really is.'


Mark Berry said...

Oliver, yes I agree about the ending. I was remiss not to mention it, but had more or less lost patience with the matter of incoherence then (i.e., when writing, rather than in the theatre, which happened much earlier!) It seemed more akin to verismo than anything else, even when not dealing with Wagner's later version. And to be honest, it just seemed like another attention-seeking ploy to conceal a lack of engagement with the work itself.

Again I agree with you about the utterly misplaced 'social' aspect. It is not that I think there is not a social aspect, but it is certainly not located in an exploration of factory life. The more 'Grimes' like tendencies seem to me closer to the mark, or at least plausible in a production, but they were presented so fitfully as to seem at best arbitrary, another 'what shall we do now?' moment.

I'd have to go back to Kupfer to give a more precise reply concerning his production. What I do remember is that it worked searingly, especially in the theatre (the Staatsoper in Berlin). Indeed it redeemed the performance - just about - from one of the worst examples of Wagner conducting I have ever had the misfortune to encounter: not Barenboim, I hasten to add, but the mysteriously popular (in some quarters) Simone Young. I think one can actually get away with a great deal if one pursues an idea with commitment; however, Kent presented little more than a ragbag. I haven't yet read him in The Guardian; from what you say, I am not sure, if only for the sake of my blood pressure, that I shall.

Simon Thomas said...

With you all the way on this one Mark. I'm a great admirer of Jonathan Kent's work but this just doesn't get it. If it hadn't been by the director who made such a great job of Ibsen's gargantuan Emperor and Galilean at the National recently, I'd have suspected the intention was to dumb down. It started promisingly - the child Senta transferring her thwarted affection from a father unable to show love to a Byronic hero figure (who then disturbingly emerges from the little girl's bed) - but the insights soon slipped away and confusion reigned. As has been said, the gang rape and bottle-suicide were messy, in the worst possible sense, and fudging the redemptive ending never seems to work. Much too much like Rupert Goold's Turandot at times for comfort. PS that follow spot was surely a mistake, wasn't it? It looked as though they'd lost control of it.

Simon Thomas said...

Have you read Intermezzo's review of the production? She seems to pick up on something that passed me by completely. Daland is pimping Senta off to some common or garden sailor, onto whom she projects her romantic fantasy. It explains why Daland can see the Dutchman when he brings him home (he's just not seeing the same thing she is) but can't later. It also explains why the Dutchman seems to fleetingly appear in the disco scene, taking part in the rape - he's just a yobbo in a fancy coat after all. These are interesting ideas, and maybe Kent does follow his concept through then, but it's so clumsily executed that I, for one, didn't get it. The switches between reality and fantasy are not clear. Perhaps if you go armed with this knowledge, it will all make a lot more sense.