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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.
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
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
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