Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Tuesday 24 February, 2015: Der Fliegende Holländer ****

Just as Nina Stemme gave us the definitive Isolda last December, so Bryn Terfel has good grounds for staking his claim as the go-to eponymous Dutchman in the Royal Opera’s current revival of Tim Albery’s 2009 production.  

Terfel has immense stage presence. From the moment his lowering form appears, and before he has sung a note, his body language and movements portray all the weariness and hopelessness of the Dutchman’s eternal sentence.  Built like a prop forward and with eyes that could bore a hole in granite, he can deliver a chiiling Scarpia, but those features can soften  and his body sag to suggest a myriad of complex emotions that reminds us that it was the Leider Prize at Cardiff which kick-started his career. And of course, that fine bass-baritone is a wondreous instrument. Terfel has said that he regards stamina as an important factor in Wagner, especially in Der Fliegende Holländer which can last anything up to two-and-a-half hours, and has no interval. He has worked out how to pace himself through a performance by conserving the voice in the early stages in order to have more in reserve for later. It works. The sound is just as honeyed and golden at the end of the third act as it is at the beginning, if not more so .

Adrianne Pieczonka knows well how to phrase Wagner’s vocal lines to bring out the beauty of the music. Her Senta was a little bit too fey in the first two acts for my liking, but in the third act when she is determined to wed the Dutchman she is more driven and wilful and her voice blossoms. Peter Rose (playing Daland) was suffering from a cold at this performance but, quite honestly, if we hadn’t been told would we have noticed? Ed Lyon as the steersman is a bit of a scene-stealer. He has it all - a beautiful lyrical tenor voice, a lithe body and a wonderful ability to draw a character.

No production of Der Fliegende Holländer would pass muster without top notch chorus work. The score boasts some of Wagner’s most beautiful choruses; and they are not just there as decoration. This is where the ROH and it’s seemingly inexhaustible resources comes into its own. Not only is the vast chorus musically secure thanks to Chorus Director Renato Balsadonna (who took a well-deserved curtain call), but they also cope with the demands of movement director Philippe Giraudeau with applomb as well as sporting some truly gross and tasteless glad rags conceived with great relish no doubt by costume designer Constance Hoffman.

When this production premiered six years ago almost to the day, there were the ususal mutterings of dissent from the purists who would preserve Wagner is aspic. But for me, Wagner operas are as ripe for constant reinterperetation as Shakespeare's plays, and a thoughtful and intelligent re-imagining can elucidate Wagner’s meaning for those of us not steeped in German 19th century philosophy. For the most part Albery’s production with its stripped-down minimalist set and contemporary setting works well. Most effective is the spinning chorus where the spinning has been replaced by ranks of sewing machines in a garment factory.

The setting devised by Albery and designer Michael Levine is a long way from picturesque. This Nordic fishing port is peopled by an earthy proleteriat trying to scrape a living, whether it be in a factory that is not much more than sweatshop, or in the peril and stench of deep-sea fishing. For Senta, the chimeral dutchman represents an aspiration, an escape from her drab hand-to-mouth existance and a loveless marriage.The setting of the first part of Act 3 in a shabby bar where the carousing fishermen and the factory girls encounter the ghostly crew of the dutchman’s ship works particularly well. Much of the credit for creating this milieu must go to Constance Hoffman’s costumes and Philippe Giraudeau’s movemnt.

The whole thing is bound together by Conductor Andries Nelson’s unhurried and uncluttered reading of the score and the sublime musicality of surely one of the best pit orchestras anywhere on the planet.

With a stonking five-star Mastersingers on at the Coliseum, metropolitan Wagner-philes are doing very nicely at the moment, thank-you. Having raised the bar so high, let’s hope that both of our leading opera houses (escpecially the unfailry picked-on ENO) can keep it at that level in future.

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