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Bryn Terfel as the Dutchman [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of The Royal Opera House]
27 Feb 2009

A restrained Flying Dutchman at the Royal Opera House, London

This Der fliegende Holländer was eagerly awaited as it hasn’t been heard at the Royal Opera House, London, since 2000. With Bryn Terfel’s return to Covent Garden as the Dutchman guaranteed a full house.

Richard Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer

Bryn Terfel (The Dutchman), Hans-Peter König (Daland), Anja Kampe (Senta), John Tessier (Steersmann), Claire Shearer (Mary), Torsten Kerl (Erik), Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, London. Marc Albrecht (conductor), Tim Albery (director), Renato Balsadonna (chorusmaster)

Above: Bryn Terfel as the Dutchman

All photos by Clive Barda courtesy of The Royal Opera House


Terfel’s admirers would not have been disappointed. His voice boomed with authority, impressive for its strength, even when he had to sing dragging a heavy rope across the stage and wade through the real water at the front of the platform. Terfel’s vocal power always impresses, and he has done interesting Dutchmen elsewhere. However, in this production, by Tim Albery, he was not called upon to develop the character. Not long ago, Albery presented Boris Gudonov as stolid, mild-mannered bourgeois. This Dutchman was no more ravaged than Daland. When the women and Daland’s sailors call out to the doomed souls on the haunted ship, they face the audience and shine lights into the auditorium. When the Dutchman’s crew do appear, they’re neatly dressed in uniform, as if they’d never been to sea. Maybe there’s some deep meaning in this, but it could have been thought through with more focus.

Dutchman_Kampe_ROH09.pngAnja Kampe as Senta

The performance was more interesting, though, for what it brought out in the music. That glorious overture is a marvel of dramatic scene-painting, setting the mood for the entire opera. How it’s staged reflects on the whole production. Here it unfolded against a backdrop of green light and projected images of rain, with shadowy figures flitting from left to right. This was interesting, but hardly enough to sustain interest for that period of time. Nor did it vary, although the score itself is characterized by distinct developmental phases. This was disappointing because Marc Albrecht’s conducting shaped these changing themes very clearly, for they define the duality that is fundamental to the whole opera.

Albrecht’s approach revealed the underlying structure. Wagner wields leitmotivs like weapons. By juxtaposing the sailor’s cheery love songs with the savagery of the music associated with the storm and the Dutchman, he draws contrasts, between stability and chaos. Particularly brilliant are the crosscurrents in Act Three, throwing the music of the village against the music of the haunted sailors. This act depicts a “storm on land”, just as the first depicts a storm at sea. Keeping the different ensembles distinct is important here, and takes some sophistication. But the Royal Opera House Chorus excels in intricate ensemble. At last the production sprang to life, animated by the sheer vitality of the singing.

Dutchman_Chorus_ROH09.pngA scene from Der fliegende Holländer with Anja Kampe (Senta) in the foreground

Indeed, the role of the chorus in this opera is sometimes underplayed since attention usually centres on the Dutchman and on Senta. The influence of Weber still hung heavily on Wagner. Some of these choruses are reminiscent of Der Freischütz, another tale of demonic forces. Thus Albrecht’s vignette-like focus reflects episodic “aria” opera tradition rather than the overwhelming sweep of late Wagner in full sail. Der fliegende Holländer is only the first stage of the saga.

Bryn Terfel may have been the big draw, but perhaps this production will be remembered as the moment Anja Kampe made her name. Anyone who can steal a scene from Terfel is worth listening to. From Kampe’s small frame emanated a voice of great power, enhanced by an understanding of Senta’s role. Even before she meets the Dutchman, she fantasizes about him. The other women work in a factory, but Senta is by nature a non-conformist, drawn to the wildness that the Dutchman symbolises. No wonder she knows right away she wants him, not Erik. Senta is the prototype of Wagner’s later heroines who equate love with death, and who find fulfilment in redeeming others. This does reflect in many ways Wagner’s own predicaments, but the archetype becomes wilder and more cataclysmic. Kampe probably has the ability to make much more of such heroines in the future, given the productions that make more of the extreme intensity - madness, even - in these roles. She’s singing Isolde at Glyndebourne this summer, which will be something to look forward to.

Anne Ozorio

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