RFH Dutchman

Smiling allowed on the programme cover, not in performance.

Opera being a strongly visual art form as well as a musical one, the idea of a pure concert performance seems a little strange to those unfamiliar with the form. However, removing the necessity for singers to run around (often in uncomfortable-looking costumes), negotiate (sometimes uncooperative) props and scenery, and bodily convey their thoughts and feelings in a manner visible to amphitheatre Row W, allows for 100% concentration on the music, in particular the expression of character and emotion through voice alone. This is no problem at all for Bryn Terfel, who took full advantage of the Royal Festival Hall’s acoustic to give us an unusually sensitive, human Dutchman, that both allowed him to show off the full expressive, dynamic and tonal range that has made him such a favourite, while being no less convincing in the role for being wearing a tuxedo rather than oilskins and boots… [read more here]


Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer


Bryn Terfel (Dutchman)
Anja Kampe (Senta)
Matti Salminen (Daland)
Martin Homrich (Erik)
Liliana Nikiteanu (Mary)
Fabio Trümpy (Steersman)
Zurich Opera Orchestra & Chorus
Alain Altinoglu (Conductor)


Image by N Fisher, borrowed from entertainment. timesonline.co.uk

In a second instalment of one-eared opera appreciation, I was at the matinee of Dutchman this weekend, still with the middle ear infection. Fortunately the dizziness has now gone, so I was able to scale the heights of the Upper Slips with no problem. Less fortunately my defective ear was the one facing the stage, but on the other hand, I could hear no snoring from the elderly woman dozing peacefully next to me.

I think she was probably the only person present who was dozing; this was generally an energetic and excitingly-sung and played musical performance which was appreciated greatly by the packed house.

The overture was accompanied visually by a large grey curtain which flapped in the win, had lights and shadows projected on it, and real water trickling down it to represent a storm at sea. This was very effective, although the novelty wore off somewhat after a couple of minutes; however, the excellent music was quite enough to hold one’s attention by itself. The main set, when it appeared, consisted of a big curved piece of riveted metal with portholes, which was both stylish and convincing as a ship (although a little less appropriate for the sewing factory and Daland’s house). The Dutchman’s ship was simply and effectively depicted by a huge shadow which crept across the stage, engulfing the napping Steersman.

I am quite happy to have the sets and costumes updated to the 20th century (somewhere around the middle?), and not bothered at all by the female chorus on rows of sewing machines rather than spinning wheels. I was not so keen on the Dutchman portrait being replaced by a model boat, which Senta carried around with her sometimes. Still, small complaints. It also made a change to see a fairly straightforward interpretation with no incest or gang rape (although some of the sailors appeared to be groping the Steersman inappropriately at one point), and where Senta and the Dutchman actually looked at eachother sometimes during their ‘love’ duet.

I have heard Bryn Terfel sing this role before, so had high expectations. I was not disappointed, as he was in great voice throughout, in complete command of his role and the stage. I thought his singing had some stylistic differences from previous performances and recordings – a little rougher-edged, and less legato – but this was entirely in keeping with Tim Albery’s unromantic, anti-glamorous vision of the character and story. I enjoyed Anja Kampe’s Senta very much; her voice was clear, strong without ever being strident, and seeming quite at ease with this challenging music. I was also impressed with her ability to make Senta a sympathetic character, which is not an easy task. She came across as neither brattish, deranged or a masochistic martyr, but as a young woman with simply a huge surfeit of compassion for those less fortunate. (She even tried to be kind and comforting to the Dutchman’s crew when they briefly turned up.) The pair of them were very convincing both individually and together.

Of the other roles, I thought Hans-Peter König was an excellent Daland. A lovely rich dark bass tone, who could hold his own quite comfortably even at the extreme depths of the register. While opting for a straightforward take on the ‘character’ (such as it is), he managed to make him a real and even believable person. I shall be looking out for him in the future. I fared less well with the tenors. I found Torsten Kerl’s Erik intensely unpleasant on the ear, and John Tessier’s Steersman not much better. However, under the circumstances it seems quite possible that something in the frequency range of the tenor voice happened to set my malfunctioning ear a-rattling, so it may have been not their fault but mine. Kerl didn’t seem to be doing an awful lot of acting when I could see him, whereas at least Tessier entertained with a silly dance and a slapstick fall into a big puddle*.

On the subject of seeing the stage, I do understand when scrimping on a cheapy Upper Slips ticket that it is with restricted view, and I also understand that directors don’t like to have all the key scenes in the middle of the stage. However, I do think that if they’re going to put important arias, duets etc. in the corner where they know some of the audience won’t be able to see, the least they could do is share them out a bit more fairly between the left and right corners! I drew a bit of a short straw this time and missed quite a lot of the action. However, I stood up and leaned over (Health & Safety!) for the ending, and was impressed by Senta jumping and hanging onto the departing ship’s gangplank. It would have been a really great ending if she’d exited in this manner, but she let herself fall down again after about a metre (Health & Safety again?). Everyone else wandered off, and it ended with her falling over, presumably either dead from Unexplained Operatic Death Syndrome or from stabbing herself with the mast of her toy boat.

The orchestra sounded very good under Marc Albrecht’s tight direction and pacey tempi, especially strings and horns, and the large chorus were also highly disciplined and strong.

* Yes, there was a great big puddle on the ship’s deck, in the sewing factory and in Daland’s house. I’m not sure it really added much.

Image borrowed from WNO website

Image borrowed from http://www.wno.org.uk

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.