Coliseum; Wigmore Hall; Royal Opera House, London
English National Opera's music director Edward Gardner made a bold statement before tackling his first Wagner last week: a majestic, evocative and often downright infuriating new staging of The Flying Dutchman by Jonathan Kent, with terrific, imposing designs by Paul Brown and some of the most imaginative storm-and-tempest lighting you will ever encounter, by Mark Henderson.
Gardner said he hoped he could build on "one of the greatest Wagner traditions in the world, stretching back through Reginald Goodall's Ring cycle to recent performances of Parsifal". Goodall's Ring was last seen in 1973, when Gardner (b 1974) might just have been in utero, but the recordings remain hallowed, a template for Wagner performance in English.
So anyone who has watched Gardner's steady but exciting progress through the operatic repertoire since he joined ENO in 2007 will have hoped he wasn't talking himself up for a fall. The opening, elemental roar of the overture, taken at breakneck speed, allayed anxiety. Gardner had the measure of Wagner's early, uneven opera and steered it, in all its rampant virility and without let up, for the next two and a half hours. The ENO orchestra excelled.
This was the version without an interval, instead of the equally viable three-act one. There is no definitive edition, as the latest in the ENO/Overture Opera Guides series, published to coincide with the Dutchman production, helpfully discusses. Playing it in one, the argument goes, gives greater unity and intensity to the drama. I suspect this is true more for the performers than the audience. Few but the most yogically inclined could both sit still – ENO's seats are not known for their comfort – and pay full attention for that time.
The legend about a Dutch sea captain condemned to sail the oceans until saved by the love of a good woman may be fairly simple to understand. But a production such as Kent's, rich with ideas and detailed action, needs breathing space, as does the music, which switches style constantly from Italianate opera to Mendelssohn to Wagner's own, still undeveloped musical voice. Unlike the interval-less Rheingold, Dutchman has its longueurs.
Kent has updated the action to the present. The work is conceived as a dream: the child Senta is already obsessed by the tale of the fabled Dutchman. Her pine bed and pink quilt stand centre stage at the opening, beneath a grid window which frames a wild, moonlit sky. Her father, Daland (Clive Bayley), abandons her, gruffly, to sleep, and dreams as he guides his own vessel through a violent storm not much helped – despite on this occasion having an ability to sing exquisitely – by his sleepy Steersman (Robert Murray).
Meanwhile the silent child has abandoned her pyjamas and grown up into Orla Boylan, who sings with a passion so fearless that the occasional raw notes only add to the hysteria of the drama. Suddenly an incredible hulk crashes through the window: in a brilliant moment of theatre a second ship, a black clipper with blood-red sail, looms at the rear of the stage, and a long-whiskered, frilly-shirted Dutchman (James Creswell, stolid but accurate) steps out of his ghostly past right into Senta's bed. This is all convincing, well thought through and rewardingly austere.
The production tilts in a new direction in the second-act "spinning chorus", delivered by girls idly working their shift in a ship-in-a-bottle factory. The glistening morning light, pouring through a vast, latticed window, is one of many meticulous stage pictures in this visually strong show. Then all hell breaks loose when Senta's fantasies get the better of her and we enter her fevered imagination. A gaudy, orgiastic nightmare of a fancy-dress party ensues and the production collapses.
Several outsized inflatables from ENO's well-stocked dildo department make an obligatory appearance, flopping all over the place including, in the case of a phallic palm tree, very nearly up Senta's skirt. To see if I could make more sense of all this I went back to see the production again. While it was far stronger on second encounter, this section remained opaque. Where is that rib-tickler by Ibn Rushd, The Incoherence of the Incoherence, when you really need it?
The end was a muddle. Wagner asks that the ship should sink and the Dutchman and Senta rise from the waves, transfigured, in an embrace. The opposite happened. Senta lies dead on the floor, the Dutchman vanishes and the ship itself is still in view. Senta's father, and her childhood lover, Erik, winningly and tenderly sung by Stuart Skelton, look on in vain, as well they might. At least Henderson's lighting, dappled and shadowy, reminded us that the sea was still present. And the superb chorus offered glorious redemption.
"But who, if I cried out, would hear me among the legions of angels?" asked Rilke in his Duino Elegies, in words befitting the pitiful Dutchman. Despite the musicality of his work, and his fondness for Orpheus and Apollo, the German poet had a strong aversion to music, tacitly rejecting Wagner's belief in a universal artwork (Gesamtkunstwerk) and considering the listener a willing slave, drugged into auditory submission by melody and rhythm. This thought came to mind hearing, just hours before The Flying Dutchman, a Rilke setting by the British composer Colin Matthews, who was the subject of a Wigmore Hall study day given by Royal Northern College of Music students.
Rilke's three-part poem "Die Insel, Nordsee" (Island in the North Sea) has a salty, Wagnerian mood, though Matthews's writing could hardly be more spare or different. Islanders are oppressed by their melancholy, exhausting, windswept and "water-washed" isolation. Anguish moves towards acceptance but the sense of sea and dyke is ever present. Scored for small ensemble in which harp, alto flute and viola dominate, The Island (2007) was sung expressively by Sarah Ogden and played with vivid delicacy by the six students conducted by Clark Rundell.
There has to be a reason to review, if briefly, a production which is making its 25th outing. In the case of John Copley's 1974 staging of La bohème at the Royal Opera House, the attraction was the Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as Rodolfo. After a nervous start, with an over-quick vibrato and some awkward slips of tempo, he gave a rapturous and touching performance. In her house debut, Carmen Giannattasio (Mimi) blossomed as the evening progressed, though remained somewhat underpowered. Both tripped over Semyon Bychkov's broad pacing but all will settle by the time of BP Summer Big Screen relays on 17 May.
After the curtain calls, Copley was presented with a cake to mark five decades' work with the Royal Opera. He recalled that a similar celebration elsewhere had the surprise bonus of a stripper. Apart from a discreet appearance by a semi-naked model for the artist Marcello (Fabio Capitanucci), in Copley's classic Bohème all keep their clothes on. Perhaps this raredisplay of operatic coyness is the secret of its success.
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