Mon 18 Feb 2013
Richard Wagner - The Flying Dutchman
NI Opera, 2013 | Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Bruno Caproni, Giselle Allen, Stephen Richardson, Paul McNamara, Adrian Dwyer, Doreen Curran | Grand Opera House, Belfast, 15th & 17th February 2013
The outcome was never really in doubt. NI Opera’s award-winning track record has been impressive since their inception two years ago, the scale and calibre of the works presented increasingly ambitious, from Menotti’s The Medium and Puccini’s site-specific Tosca in Derry through to newly commissioned work for NI Opera Shorts and a production of Noye’s Fludde that travelled to Beijing. Putting on a Wagner opera however is a challenge on another scale entirely. Even if Der Fliegende Holländer is one of the composer’s shorter works, it is scarcely any less demanding in the very specific orchestral and singing requirements that are quite different from the popular aria-driven Italian opera.
Admittedly however, while the First Act of the English language version of The Flying Dutchman was capably performed here at the Grand Opera House in Belfast - the first ever fully-staged performance of the work in Northern Ireland - it did feel a little flat. Something was missing. Still, no cause for immediate concern. The First Act of The Flying Dutchman is quite difficult, the stormy overture a prelude to a gloom-laden hour of long passages of deep, grave male singing - mostly basses and baritones - as the dark figure of the Dutchman recounts the horror of his curse, doomed to sail the seas for eternity, finding land again after seven years in the vain hope that the love of a good and faithful woman will set him free. There’s not a whole lot of light and shade here, much less dramatic action and, even with the familiarity now of Wagner’s brilliant leitmotifs and their hints of what is to come, it’s always been a fairly demanding opening sequence.
Like much of Wagner though you just have to bear with it, as the forthcoming rewards more often than not merit the long drawn-out pacing and slow development of situations. (And yes, I realise that this review seems to be adopting the same principle - long-windedly positing doom and gloom with the promise of redemption to come). That’s because Wagner has a secret weapon in reserve for the Second Act, which is the arrival of Senta. It’s a device that Wagner would unleash in a more fluid manner in the revised version of the opera - played straight through with linking sections and no breaks between acts - but if you listen carefully she’s there in a leitmotif during the Vorspiel to Act One. Recognising this, NI Opera’s production did indeed effectively and with musical validity try to lift the First Act by bringing forward Senta’s first appearance to the dreamily melancholic Senta leitmotif in the overture, the young woman walking across a stormy shoreline as the snow starts to fall. And it even sounded to me like conductor Nicholas Chalmers wrung an extra ounce of romantic sensitivity out of the Ulster Orchestra during this sequence. Despite the dramatic shortcomings then and musical unevenness of the weighty first Act (Daland and the Dutchman’s duet sounding like something that has wandered in from an Italian opera) with a staging was unable to give it any kind of boost, this nonetheless boded promisingly for what was to come.
We had to wait until after the interval then for the deployment of Wagner’s incendiary device, but NI Opera clearly also had one or two secret weapons of their own in their armoury to ensure that this Dutchman took flight. One was the remarkable performance of Giselle Allen as Senta, the other was the energetic drive and virtuosity of the Ulster Orchestra. OK, nothing there that will really come as any great surprise to those of us familiar with the qualities Northern Ireland’s finest, but the way they were brought into play was impressive nonetheless. You could virtually hear a sigh of relief from the audience as the curtain lifted on what looked like a church assembly hall in the 1970s - a bright, colourful scene-shift from the gloom of Act One - where the ladies sat spinning at their Singer sewing machines, the beauty of the assembled female voices soaring with optimism and hope that the sea would deliver the safe return of their men.
Doreen Curran’s glowering Mary wonderfully kept the proceedings from getting too cheery, but it was of course the ringing tones of Giselle Allen’s Senta whose romantic spinning of the tale of the cursed captain and his crew dominated and directed the whole tone of the Second Act. Responding to the urgings of her fellow seamstresses, this Senta did indeed seem to be possessed by a demon, sitting down and seeming to slip into a trance as she recounted the myth of the Flying Dutchman. Much as Chalmers managed to place some emphasis on the Vorspiel’s dreamy Senta leitmotif, stage director Oliver Mears similarly allowed Senta’s romanticism to invade the whole work whenever she was present, allowing the necessary spell to be woven that would make the Dutchman’s arrival - and the long silent gaze that lies between them - all the more dramatic. Retaking the same positions into this locked gaze after their duet, it was as if the romanticism of the encounter takes place in more in Senta’s head than in reality.
Dramatically then, as well as in the all-important delivery of the exceptional singing demands that are necessary to make this work convincingly, NI Opera’s The Flying Dutchman succeeded at least in finding the right tone. It even allowed for one or two moments of humour to sit well alongside all the weighty recounting of ancient legends, such as Senta’s father Daland approving of the couple making each other’s acquaintance while they are in the middle of a hot-and-heavy, passionate, sweeping-everything-off-the-table kind of entanglement on the nearest available substitute for a bed. Quite why the setting of the seventies was chosen however wasn’t entirely clear. There didn’t appear to be any real attempt to connect the legend of the Dutchman to the Troubles, even if there is a certain amount of recognition of Belfast’s history as a port and ship-building city. There’s no obligation of course for NI Opera to make every local production site-specific, and attempting to do so with Wagner could lead to some ill-advised and ill-fitting parallels that would never work convincingly (Senta a militant activist waiting for the delivery of an arms shipment? The homeless “Dutchman” seeking to rid himself of the curse of his nation’s occupation?), so perhaps allowing the work to speak for itself in the 70s is enough. It certainly worked on those terms alone.
Well, not quite alone. Both the male and the female choruses were in wonderful voice and with the driving accompaniment of the orchestra, their powerful contribution to the impact of the overall work was well directed and delivered. Crucially however there were also solid performances from the main roles in Bruno Caproni’s brooding Dutchman and Giselle Allen’s obsessive Senta. The Belfast soprano sustained a magnificent tension right the second act and the close of the third, a veritable Senta-bomb that exploded on the stage of the Grand Opera House in a blood-drenched death scene climax of nerve-shattering high notes. If my own reaction is anything to go by, the audience were surely gasping for breath by that point. If you can’t achieve that kind of impact doing Wagner though, there’s really no point even attempting it, but when you have Giselle Allen and the Ulster Orchestra at your disposal and operating on the kind of form shown here, there was never likely to be any serious concern about the outcome.