I generally try to avoid reviews of productions I know I’m going to see, as I prefer to go in without preconceptions and I like to be surprised. However, it was impossible to miss the fact that David Pountney’s latest staging of Dutchman for the WNO has not exactly been received with universal acclaim. On the other hand, it was also pretty much impossible that I wouldn’t enjoy it; two of my current favourite singers on the planet (Bryn Terfel and Gidon Saks) on the same stage, singing Wagner? And indeed, I enjoyed it immensely, to the extent that my poor friend who was sharing my Cardiff hotel room had to tell me to shut up about it and let her go to sleep, eventually turning the light out on me at 2am. Musically it was excellent; visually – well, I’m going to come out and say that I rather liked it on the whole, although there were a few things I don’t think worked.
So, the lights went down, the house was hushed (apart from the couple to my right, who decided that this was the moment to start unwrapping their sweets, and the elderly lady behind me, who couldn’t get the velcro on her shoes quite right and had to keep adjusting it – at least, I think that’s what she was doing), and the WNO orchestra began with a strongly played overture, the brass powerful, the woodwind sonorous, the strings vibrant and the percussion positively athletic. Then the curtain lifted, and the much discussed giant video projection screens showed… a giant vibrator swinging round in circles. Ok, it was probably a cannon or something nautical like that, but it looked like a big metal knob, and a quick glance round at the audience showed that I wasn’t the only person with a juvenile sense of humour trying to keep my sniggers silent.
We were then introduced to a fine male chorus of sailors (note my restraint in not making any awful ‘seamen’ puns), including a very pleasant-toned Steersman (Peter Wedd, who I don’t think I’ve come across before). I was a little concerned about Gidon Saks (Daland) at first, as his voice didn’t seem to have its usual strength, especially in the lower register. However, he held his own in the fab Dutchman/Daland duet, and by the end of Act 1 was back to his usual lovely dark full-bodied sound. He has a particular talent for playing bad guys and made Daland a more unpleasant but more interesting (and – how should I put it – oddly desirable) character than I believe is usual. Bryn Terfel, a suitably bitter and doom-laden Dutchman was clearly the main (or only) draw for a significant portion of the audience, and he did not disappoint; from his first utterance his voice was electrifying. During his first aria, ‘Die Frist ist um’, the temperature in the amphitheatre inexplicably rose by several degrees – or maybe it was just me forgetting to breathe. While all this was going on, the screens were doing a bit of sliding around, with various imaged projected on them, of spacecraft, some space, interior shots of a space station, etc., interspersed with huge eyes (Senta’s and the Dutchman’s), which turned out to be a repeated visual motif of the production. I rather liked this for the most part; there were some particularly effective moments, such as the backdrop for the Steersman’s watch, and Senta’s huge staring eyes (if I remember rightly) just before the Dutchman’s appearance, but I don’t think the images were really used to full effect. There was a great moment when they turned blood-red, and this glowing coloured backdrop effect (very ENO) could have been used more often, but I have to say I was slightly confused by the Dutchman’s immense treasures appearing to consist of an immense number of 70’s-style telephones. I found the idea of the Dutchman drifting through the vast bleakness of the universe an appealing one, and quite appropriate for a modern conception of eternity; more appropriate, perhaps, than the seas of our own little planet. However, I couldn’t help but be niggled by the fact that the music is so infused with the sound of the sea, with waves, winds and storms, whereas space is, well, silent. I suppose one could substitute solar winds, radiation bursts and meteor showers, but it doesn’t sit comfortably.
There were no intervals in this performance, but there was a refreshing change of mood for the start of Act 2, with the female chorus sorting out a large bundle of hanging fibreoptic cables and giving a surprisingly enjoyable performance of the normally tedious ‘Spinning Chorus’. Mary (Mary Lloyd-Davies) looked rather like a prison warder, (metaphorically) cracking the whip to keep them in line, while also attempting to keep her young charge Senta (Annalena Persson) from misbehaving. This was no romantically pining maiden; more a mildly deranged adolescent with ADHD, running among the cables and snatching them from the other women’s hands, when not obsessively graffiti-ing the walls and floor with the ‘eye’ motif. I very much enjoyed Annalena Persson’s voice; although I think her technical ability perhaps leaves a little to be desired in terms of accuracy, her style and passion were enough to carry it off with no trouble. Her acting was also completely convincing in its emotional confusion and changeability. The character of Erik is at best irritating, at worst repugnantly pathetic and clingy, and Ian Storey’s portrayal was closer to the latter. I have to say, I did not particularly enjoy his singing either, but this should not be taken as a criticism – it simply wasn’t to my taste.
I was a little surprised that when the Dutchman came into her room, Senta asked who he was without having looked round yet. Perhaps she ‘felt his presence’. She didn’t seem too pleased to see her father either, which is perhaps not surprising considering the uncomfortable overtones in his affection for her. In recent years it seems quite de rigeur to have slightly incestous Wotan/Brunnhilde relationships, so why not here too, I suppose? It could be one possible reason for her tendendy to hysteria. The friends I was with for this performance were very unhappy with the fact that during the long scene between the Dutchman and Senta, they wandered in and out of the screens, singing to themselves, or to projected images of eachother, rather than (more traditionally) gazing into eachother’s eyes. However, I thought it worked quite well. They have both spent so long thinking, or obsessing about idealised visions of the other, that they are quite unprepared for the shock of meeting their destiny in physical form, and immediately shy away, taking time (a whole duet) to come to terms with the situation. Looking at the libretto, they are, after all, referring to eachother in the third person or self-analysing for a lot of it, and it is quite a while before she actually addresses him directly; he doesn’t say “you” until some time after that. This left the audience desperate for them to connect properly with eachother, but when they finally do embrace, it is snatched away as they are immediately interrupted and dragged away.
The third act began with the sailors drunk and disorderly. I wouldn’t be too keen to party with them, but the female chorus were, and some of them ended up regretting it. Although I can see the director’s thinking in inserting a brutal assault and rape of several of the women into the scene, I personally think it was inappropriate, the manner in which it was done was gratuitous and offensive. However, the crew seemed suitably terrified of the Dutch ghost crew (who we heard but couldn’t see), and when their light went out with a bang, I consoled myself with thinking that their bit of space station (had you forgotten we were in space?) has lost power or air pressure or something, and the bastards all died. When whinging Erik turned up again to hassle Senta, there was the bitter feeling that this was the moment where things were about to all go horribly wrong – not that the odds of a happy ending were particularly good to start with. Senta’s final phrases were chilling, but I would have like a traditional jump from the cliff. Or scaffolding. Or out the airlock, if you like. Rather than just standing there. The video screens showed bubbles and churning water (but I thought we were in space?), and then, with the final modulation to D major, doors opening onto – shock – real land, air, plants, Earth. Until that moment I hadn’t realised how claustrophobic it had been, and it brought a genuine feeling of relief.