Sunday, 29 April 2012

ENO Flying Dutchman - dark, dangerous

Provocative, dark insights into The Flying Dutchman ENO at the Coliseum, London. You'll be disturbed. But with a plot like this, you should be. No holds barred in this Overture. Edward Gardner unleashed the violence in the turmoil. Turbulent upheavals, stretching, arching surges that seem to leap dangerously out of the orchestra, threatening to tear you out of your seat. In all the years I've been following Gardner, I've never heard him as wild as this, but he's right. This wildness reflects the psychic battle going on, with Senta's soul at stake.

Daland's happy to sell his daughter to a mysterious, possibly unsavoury, stranger. The Dutchman wants a woman who'll release him from his curse. Erik wants a nice companion. But what does Senta want, and why? Director Jonathan Kent shows us Senta as a young girl, sitting up in bed, listening to the storm around her. She's grown up by the ocean, raised on seamen's yarns. Daland's always at sea, and Senta has neither mother nor siblings. Suddenly, the Steersman's song takes on grim meaning. What a delicate song this is compared with the other music in this opera. Yet Wagner gives it unusual prominence. "In gale and storm, from far-off seas, my maiden, I am near!" With her fervid imagination, Senta's conditioned from childhood to dream of strangers. Kent connects the sleeping Steersman (Robert Murray) with Senta, who ought to be asleep, but isn't. Already we see that Senta won't grow up complacent like the other girls in the village, for she roams the oceans in her mind. Not so different from the Dutchman himself. When Kent places the Dutchman sitting on little Senta's bed, the effect is disturbing. Strangers shouldn't intrude in little girls' bedrooms. Nice girls don't long for strange old men. (He's hundreds of years older!). But that's exactly why The Flying Dutchman is demonic. This Dutchman, James Creswell, is more Darcy than Heathcliff, but there are limits to how much any audience can take. When the Dutchman's ship bursts through onto the stage and the haunted sailors appear, the little girl (Aoife Checkland) weaves her way among them, dancing.

The women of the village "spin", this time on an assembly line producing ships in bottles. Wonderful idea! Tacky souvenirs for people who'll never venture from shore but want "the open seas experience" bottled up in a safe package. Had Senta been a boy she might have gone to sea herself, but as a girl, she has to find another outlet. Because she's different, the other women mock her. Conformists hate iconoclasts. Orla Boylan sings Senta and Susanna Tudor-Thomas her boss, Mary. Yet in this production, Erik almost steals the limelight. Stuart Skelton sings the part so beautifully that he fills out the character, revealing Erik's sensitivity. The women are wrong: Erik hasn't chosen a safe profession. Like Senta, and somewhat like the Dutchman, he's chosen a solitary existence on principle. Loving someone as obsessive as Senta isn't an easy option. Any girl fixated as she is, isn't normal, but Skelton's Erik exudes genuine tenderness, which makes him extremely sympathetic and complex. Often Eriks are no match for the principals, but Skelton creates the role so it counterbalances Clive Bayley's Daland and Creswell's Dutchman. Skelton's Erik is good that he makes you wonder who's really doing sacrificial redemption in this opera - Erik or Senta?

One of Jonathan Kent's trademarks is his economic use of sets - remember his Don Giovanni for Glyndebourne (read more here), and his Glyndebourne Purcell The Fairy Queen (more here).  Thus the set at the Coliseum (designed by Paul Brown) instantly transforms from factory to party after the brief interval where The Dutchman and Senta face each other. Or don't in this case, as Senta's too caught up in her fantasy to look too closely - another subtle insight. The party scene is both gaudy and brutal, for happiness in this harsh climate is hurriedly snatched. Hence rushed gropings, desperate attempts at "romance" without love. Again, Kent touches on the tacky tourism image. The sailors bring back souvenirs from afar, and wear parrot costumes and pirate shirts, but it's all on the surface. Notice the plastic palm tree. It looks fun but upside down it resembles a phallus. Just as Daland sells his daughter to strange men, relationships in this village are unromantic transactions. Hence everyone mocks Senta, her bridal veil more a badge of shame than triumph. Who does she think she is, daring to be different and better than "we" are?

ENO audiences may be shocked at the mock rape scene but it is aboslutely true, I think, to the deeper spirit of this opera. Senta is brutalized because she's not part of the gang. The other women look on, as if knowing that's what will happen to them if they step out of line. Gardner's conducting flares into horrified harshness. This is his first Wagner, but bodes well for the future. Senta's semi-rape made me think of Brünnhilde's humiliation in Götterdämmerung. Both women are debased because they defy the shabby norms around them. Out of this chaos, the Dutchman materializes, like Lohengrin, to save the hapless maiden.  In The Flying Dutchman, the situation is perhaps less extreme, since the locals think it's a normal wedding, but taken in the context of Wagner's other work, it's thought-provoking. I'd love to hear a Kent/Gardner Ring. Safe, bland and mass appeal it would not be. But should Wagner ever be safe and bland, other than at the Met?

No mention of whether this ENO Flying Dutchman is a co-production with any other house, but it would transport well to a venue larger than the Coliseum, so there's potential for generating income elsewhere in Europe, where this production would probably be appreciated, because it's very good. With a top rank European cast, and sung in German, this would be world class. (Skelton's world class). English is the ENO's Archilles Heel. (more on this soon). Dare I say it, but this production would suit the Royal Opera House extremely well. Hopefully the dull ROH Tim Albery Der fliegende Holländer will be jettisoned  now that Kasper Holten rules the artistic roost.

Book here    This one's worth going to, visually and musically.
photos copyright Robert Workman, courtesy ENO.


Joseph Alder said...

The same set from 'Sweeney Todd' and 'borrowings' from other 'Dutchman' productions?Wagner etc. down the years ... 'Senta's Dream' is not original and the wild revels at the end were a version of something directed by David McVicar. The music and singing was mostly that of 'Dutchman' as if it was a lost Verdi opera ... a 'numbers' rum-ti-tum piece devoid of much that is Wagner. This summer I will need Thielemann at Bayreuth to erase the memory of this. It will be all be praised because most people in the UK have forgotten what Wagner should sound like ... I suspect the staging and singing would get a much less favourable reception across the rest of Europe who still know their Wagner. The cheap seats at the Coliseum were not soldout and I wonder what the audience will be like for the rest of the run - the ENO seems to have lost its core audience of regulars and must now rely on good word of mouth (like this tries to do) for its box office receipts.

Doundou Tchil said...

If this production shakes you up like this, it might be a good thing. Grin !

Joseph Alder said...

Yes, fuming ... and spuming! Don't get me started on the money wasted on the pantomime ship's prow that creaks (rather than crashes) onstage during 'Act I' and the ships in a bottle factory (what a wheeze!)and the fact the nobody high up in the theatre would have realised Senta kills herself (it seems) with a broken bottle at the end ... I just thought she broke it! A paedophilia element that was present at the start should have been developed had Kent and the ENO board had the courage! Perhaps that would have been too much publicity - of the wrong sort?

Doundou Tchil said...

Few production is ever "the best" or "the worst". The main thing is how they start people thinking. But thinking takes more real courage than whining. No matter what, some folks need to keep qibbling for the sake of quibbling. That's where they really get their kicks. How Senta dies isn't as important as the fact she dies and why. But that would mean understanding the opera in the first place. Does Wagner side with the drunken mob? Maybe he should have revised the opera so the mob wins.