English National Opera's new staging of The Flying Dutchman marks the Wagnerian debuts of both Jonathan Kent as director and Edward Gardner as conductor. In a recent interview, they promised us a "white-knuckle ride", and in some respects don't disappoint. This is emotive, hard-hitting stuff that is guaranteed to set your nerves jangling. You could argue, however, that Kent has strayed further from Wagner, in places, than might be considered ideal.
He makes Senta, rather than the Dutchman, the opera's protagonist, and refashions the narrative as an examination of the conflict between reality and illusion in her imagination. We first meet her as a little girl, to whom Clive Bayley's unloving Daland gives a story book with the Dutchman's face on the cover in an attempt to calm her through the storm that rages outside. As an adult, played by Orla Boylan, her fantasies of encountering the tragic sea captain are her means of escape from the sexual world that intrudes upon her humdrum life working in a tourist souvenir factory, where her confused ex Erik (Stuart Skelton) is a security guard.
There are some sharp insights along the way. The opera was written in response to contemporary gothic literature, and James Creswell's Dutchman is a Byronic glamour boy, who materialises in Senta's bed as his ship crashes through the bedroom walls. The often underplayed scene in which Daland effectively offers to sell Senta to the Dutchman is notably alarming on this occasion. But the pervasive atmosphere of sexual menace - culminating in an attempted gang rape of Senta by Daland's crew – sits uneasily with the score. There is little sense of grand metaphysical passions at play, and, as one might expect, no redemption at the close.
It sounds wonderful, though. Gardner – a natural and exciting Wagnerian, on this showing – paces the score's immense span with unfailing energy. The playing is strong, the choral singing very fine. Creswell's Dutchman is more elegant, less craggy than most. Once past a slightly tentative start, Boylan is thrilling, above all towards the end when madness looms and the emotions become torrential. And Skelton's Erik, beautifully voiced and phrased, has rarely been bettered.
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