The Flying Dutchman (ENO) Review Summary

Written By The Wagnerian on Monday, 7 May 2012 | 11:05:00 am


The Dutchman may be one of Wagner’s most “accessible” works, especially for those coming to him for the first time. While it represents the beginning of his more mature work, it is still recognisably “operatic” in form. Add to this it is, for Wagner, short in duration, it contains a small number of characters to keep track of, its story is linear with few of the expositional “stops” that seem to bother many people about Wagner - indeed dramatically it moves forward with some momentum.  Of equal importance, with the rise of neo-gothic and urban fantasy, its themes are familiar to nearly everyone, especially younger opera goers – unlike those of Parsifal, or Lohengrin for example.  If ever there was a Wagner opera whose story needs no (or at the most, little altering) then it is the Dutchman. Update it? Sure why not – if you feel the need. Minimalist staging, Jungian staging, feminist/neo feminist staging? Go on then - if it sounds interesting. But a re-write?  Have the text say one thing while the action on stage is in direct conflict? Change the ending completely?  Create an “interpretation” that simply cannot be supported by the text or any reading of said text? Surely, like all of Wagner’s work, there is enough going on under the surface that makes such a move redundant?  Of course, this has never stopped an opera director, who - rather than go off and learn to write their own - decide   to completely “rewrite” someone else’s work. And so we come to Kent’s Flying Dutchman,  for whatever it might be it is certainly not Wagner’s – in any of its versions. As Ann Pickard (AP) in the Independent puts it:

“Kent is at odds with Wagner's gothic fantasy from the start, sometimes productively, sometimes not.”  

As I told someone recently, this seems less Wagner’s Dutchman and more the opening of the fifth series of the new Doctor Who (without the obvious redemption of either character), directed by a Tim Burton who has just become an obsessive fan of the deplorable British horror/come “social commentary” Eden Lake (click any of the links to see examples if you are unfamiliar). Of course, this description may be incorrect, or even unfair, but if we are all free to interpret any way we wish...

 Thus, at least ignoring its music for a moment, it stands or falls on the success of its interpretation and for this we must turn to that shy, timid and rarely seen creature (but approach with caution and whatever you do, don’t feed it) “the opera critic”. But before disturbing the poor little things, let me provide a very brief overview of Kent’s production

Like many Dutchmen previously, this one is centred on Senta and like others the action is probably mostly in her imagination. Although, in Kent’s vision it would seem no one but her is  able to see the Dutchman – or at least as she sees him (There may very well be “two” Dutchmen: the one she has constructed in her mind since childhood as a sensitive girls release from a “cruel”., insensitive, uncaring working class  existence (it’s “grim up north thee knows” – at least in Kent’s production)and then the same Dutchman she is projecting onto some  “bloke” her father has “set her up with”.

Later, when she grows up, (we first meet her as a child) she is ever the outsider, mocked by her social peers who later try to gang rape her or else stand by and watch. Not only is it “grim up north” but it’s clearly no place for a nice sensitive girl with middle class aspirations – “rape you in your bed these working class types you know – especially if you’re “different”. And while claiming state benefits no doubt”.
Rather than bringing about “redemption” for her and the Dutchman, Kent’s production ends with her killing herself with a broken beer bottle.

And with that very lose description in mind, let us descend to the natural habitat of the critic, poke them with a stick and see what happens.

And first out of hibernation, raising its little fury head, we find the editor of the Wagner Journal, and both editor and author of a large number of books on Wagner: Barry Millington (BM). If ever there was someone qualified to judge the productions success it should surely be he:

Jonathan Kent’s tremendous production for ENO, the most original seen in the UK since Mike Ashman’s for Covent Garden in 1986, bravely but triumphantly explores the potential of a Senta-centred view of the work”

Well, thanks there Barry, no need to look any further surely? Hang on, is that Mark Berry, also a noted Wagner scholar (Really, You should read his very fine paper on Parsifal found here) and contributor to the Wagner Journal.  Mark? You’re in agreement? Right? Mark? What? No, no it’s fine. It’s safe to come out, he's gone - honestly:

“...  Jonathan Kent’s production fails to cohere. Whilst resemblances to Tim Albery’s dreary production across town for the Royal Opera are doubtless coincidental – though might it not reasonably be part of a stage director’s job to inform himself of what others in his position have done? – the factory setting of the second act, the increasingly odd, yet unrevealingly odd, costumes, and apparent unwillingness or inability to listen to Wagner’s score present an unfortunate kinship.”

Oh dear! Anything else?
"Unlike Albery, Kent appears to have some ideas. The problem is more that they rarely seem properly thought through, and that they do not necessarily cohere with each other.”

Would you have any advice to the director as to how he should address these issues Dr Berry? You know... if he was one of your students?

"My abiding impression of Kent’s production, then, was of an undergraduate with a few too many ideas, who would need to be taken aside, advised to deepen his acquaintance with the work over a few years, before returning to it and deciding more clearly how to pursue one or two of those ideas."

Sound advice, sound advice I am sure. Thanks for that Mark. Do you have any places on any of your under or graduate courses?

Two somewhat conflicting opinions then. Let us look elsewhere shall we.What about Andrew Clarke over at the FT? Andrew? 

“Kent’s interpretation, anchored on dry land by the factory setting, remains hopelessly at sea. The anonymous décor could serve any number of operas. The ocean, represented by an intermittent video of waves, looks at best apologetic, at worst irrelevant”.

Time Ashley over at the Guardian found it, “...emotive, hard-hitting stuff that is guaranteed to set your nerves jangling” but qualified this with, “You could argue, however, that Kent has strayed further from Wagner, in places, than might be considered ideal.” Not that he didn’t enjoy it or significant parts thereof but thought, “There is little sense of grand metaphysical passions at play, and, as one might expect, no redemption at the close".

Marc Brooks at Musical Critism thought it not, “.... a bad night out – just not in the same league as ENO's recent best.”  And the productions problem was?  “The problem with the new ENO production, however, is that it can't make up its mind whether it's camping it up with Heine, or brooding introspectively with Wagner.”

Edward Seckerson at the Independent seems in two minds, while enjoying the earlier scenes: “...when Senta, the woman, finally emerged from that childhood sanctuary moments after the Dutchman’s ship had come crashing through its walls the sense of her fixation becoming a kind of reality for her was brought powerfully home.” he seemed less convinced later on:  “...one did wonder how much of the orgiastic wedding-night piss-up was in her head as she resisted all manner of physical assaults to achieve her “higher purpose”. I wasn’t entirely convinced.”

Oddly, neither was Rupert Christiansen over at the Telegraph who thought  that while, “Jonathan Kent’s period-unspecific mise-en-scène is fine as far as it goes” but, “what I crucially missed in Paul Brown’s rather prosaically enclosed set was a quality haunting Gardner’s orchestra – a sense of the ocean’s vast and portentous power.”

But what of the performers? As always, o much time is spent on the production, very little is left for the actual performers. With this in mind I have managed to extract the following. 

Daland – Clive Bayley

Thank goodness, then, for a typically detailed character portrayal from Clive Bayley, despite the silly dance he was forced to perform at the end of the second act (MB)
Darland (the excellent Clive Bayley)  (ES)

Clive Bayley was a creepily venal Daland (RC)

Senta – Orla Boylan

Orla Boylan seemed quite miscast as Senta. It is, I know, a very difficult role, but her often squally tone often turned downright hectoring; at times, it was almost impossible not to wince.  (MB)

Orla Boylan’s Senta did more than convincingly suggest the plain girl dreamer socially stifled by a selfish and overly protective father (ES)

She can certainly belt it out over the top of Wagner's brassy orchestra and was good at the passionate moments in each of her duets.  However, in the intimate 'Senta's Ballad' where she relates the legend of the Flying Dutchman, and around which the whole opera turns, she wasn't able to draw the audience into her inner world by establishing an emotional connection. (MBR)

Orla Boylan had pitching problems in some of the higher reaches of Senta’s cruelly taxing vocal lines; lower down, she sang cleanly and gamely met the production’s considerable ask, including submission to a gratuitous gang-bang during the sailors’ Act 3 rave-up (RC)

Erik – Stuart Skelton

Skelton’s is a fine voice, of course, but he can act too – and certainly did. Though the voices could hardly be more different, I was reminded of a production I saw in Vienna, in which Klaus Florian Vogt – the first time I heard him – quite stole the show (MB)

Stuart Skelton sang the pants off the role and found nuances to make even the tenderness believable. (ES)
Not only did Skelton manage to shape this less interesting material into a convincing melodic line, he also managed to elicit the sort of sympathy that Boylan couldn't. (MRB)

Stuart Skelton made much of the thankless, hapless Erik. But the evening’s most elegant singing came from Robert Murray as the Steersman. (RC)

The Dutchman – James Creswell

James Creswell made for the most part a commanding Dutchman; his care with the words, here sung in David Pountney’s translation, was noteworthy (MB)

...handsomely voiced by James Creswell, though a certain uniformity in colour and dynamics detracted somewhat from his effectiveness (ES)

James Creswell's stentorian bass added to his already formidable stage presence to make a Dutchman that you could believe would turn a teenage girl's head (M.BR)

Although James Creswell sang with dignity and security as the Dutchman, his characterisation – more Byronic than nautical – came over as recessively stolid rather than charismatically mysterious. (RC)

Finally, to Edward Gardner (a first timer to Wagner), the ENO Orchestra and Chorus of whom most positive things were said, :

A force 10 gale launches The Flying Dutchman, and fearless skipper Edward Gardner sailed ENO’s new production straight into the storm.
What followed was a thrillingly dangerous journey during which Gardner – a Wagner greenhorn, though you wouldn’t have guessed it – never faltered, steering the ship manfully through massive breakers as well as calmer waters.
Anyone can make an orchestra play triple fortissimo, and it’s also relatively easy to energise the shanties and folksy waltzes scattered through the score.
But what was most impressive about Gardner’s interpretation was its overall sense of pace and drama (RC)
Edward Gardner conducts feverishly, at the expense of Wagner’s accents but to the benefit of a well-chosen cast and spirited chorus (AC)

Edward Gardner, conducting his first Wagner opera, lashes his forces to evoke the demonic fury of the elements, making a strong case for the continuous version (a questionable posthumous trend started by Cosima Wagner) with the drive and coherence of his reading. (BM)

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.(TA).

But the real heroics came from ENO’s Chorus and Orchestra. Wagner sounds well in this theatre and the gusto emanating from both pit and quarter deck provided an abundance of tempest-tossed thrills. (ES)

The ENO Orchestra was on magnificent form, as fine as I can recall hearing it. As for Edward Gardner’s direction, this was a reading clearly determined to focus on dramatic excitement. There is nothing wrong with that, up to a point, but it missed Wagner’s depths. There was little of the problems with maintaining dramatic line that bedevil so many conductors – an impressive achievement for someone conducting his first Wagner opera – but the sound and drive seemed more appropriate to Verdi, or at a push perhaps to Rienzi. (MB)