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Ghost Ship by Charles Cochrane
12 Dec 2008

Der Fliegende Holländer — London Lyric Opera, Barbican Hall

Much has been promised of London Lyric Opera. The newest company on the capital’s opera scene, it will collaborate with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to specialise in full-scale concert performances with high-profile soloists.

R. Wagner: Der Fliegende Holländer

Senta (Gweneth-Ann Jeffers); Holländer (James Hancock); Erik (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts); Daland (Karl Huml); Mary (Anne-Marie Owens); Steuermann (Richard Roberts). London Lyric Opera. Lionel Friend, conducting.

Above: Ghost Ship by Charles Cochrane


Plans are afoot for a Fidelio at Cadogan Hall in February 2009, and after that, Die Fledermaus and Der Freischütz.

It is unclear whether there might be an intention in the more distant future to broaden the company’s scope beyond the German language, but perhaps there shouldn’t be. Although LLO is selecting well-known operas, it is also actively seeking out unusual and historically-valid performance editions. The UK is virtually flooded with companies doing the same for Baroque opera, and for Italian bel canto rarities, but there hasn’t really been anybody around to take an equivalent interest in the core German repertoire — until now.

The company’s founder and mastermind is the Australian baritone James Hancock, and this inaugural concert was the fulfilment of his long-held desire to perform the title role. Hancock used to be a tenor, and his voice remains higher-lying than the role demands; more worryingly, his voice simply dried out as the evening went on, and by the end of Act 2 there was really no ‘juice’ left. Though it is the fashion these days to preserve the dramatic flow of the opera by going straight through without intervals (as Wagner had intended at the outset), the two breaks in this performance were a practical necessity. Karl Huml seemed somewhat too high for Daland, too, and I couldn't help wondering whether he would have fared better in the title role.

The performance’s unquestionable highlight was the British soprano, Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, making her role début as Senta. Lyrical and muscular of tone, with an assured stage presence and innate sense of drama, she captured the supreme emotional focus of Wagner’s early heroine in her desperation to break out of her downtrodden existence. This ‘authentic’ performance edition has the Ballad in its original A minor, a tone higher than the familiar key, and it fit Jeffers’s athletic soprano like a glove.

Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts is neither a natural Wagnerian nor a natural love interest, but his psychologically intense and highly-charged Erik was a fitting foil for Jeffers’s Senta. Their pairing was a highly intelligent piece of casting, and their scenes together were in a different league to the rest of the opera. If only there had been such chemistry between Senta and the Dutchman.

Tenor Richard Roberts’s dopey characterisation of the Steersman was engaging, though his opening song was something of a struggle; he was quite plainly suffering from a cold, though no announcement was made.

The soft lyrical passage at the end of Senta’s ballad defeated the ladies of the Philharmonia Chorus, but their male colleagues were a strong and lusty Norwegian crew; I’m sure there was nothing wrong with those who supplied the voices of the ghostly Dutch crew, but there was some nasty distortion on the amplification system which piped their rousing chorus through from offstage. Veteran conductor Lionel Friend — who was responsible for the research into the performing edition — made some strange tempo choices, but the RPO generally sounded full and energetic, a few cracked brass notes aside.

All in all, the performance would have benefited from better-balanced casting; Jeffers was just so good that she showed everybody else up. And better marketing would help ticket sales and thus financial viability; the Barbican Hall’s stalls were quite full, but there was plenty of space in the Circle and they didn’t even bother to open the Balcony. If they can sort these things out, London Lyric Opera could be an enduring success.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

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