Richard Wagner is quintessentially German, or at least how Germany used to be. And if not German, then certainly northern European, cast from the same die as Chekhov or Ibsen. The myths and tales from which they and Wagner take inspiration are the result of long, cold winter nights of old, huddled around fires, telling stories.
Wagner’s main body of works deals with the Teutonic ancient myths surrounding the heart of Europe but with Der Fliegende Holländer he moves slightly further afield. Originally claiming that he was inspired to write the opera by an eventful sea voyage from Riga to London in the summer of 1939 he later revealed that it was Heinrich Heine’s 1833 telling of the legend from which the idea came.
The story is based on a myth thought to have originated in the southern hemisphere in the 17th century, although the opera is set in Norway. The legend is linked to the golden age of the Dutch East India Company and involves a ghostly ship that roams the high seas, forbidden to ever make port.
Wagner’s operas provide the opportunity for conductors, directors and designers to let their hair down and pull out all the stops. The Nederlandse Reisopera’s current Fliegende Holländer leaves no stop unpulled with a magnificent, spectacular and original production. The most innovative, and one could say dominant, feature was the use of a giant video screen which acts as a permanent backdrop. The ever changing moving pictures provided stormy seas and flaming coastlines but it was the re-occuring giant, blinking eye reflected in a cracked mirror that was the most memorable image.
Impressive though the giant screen was, it was always complimentary to the action and never dominated it – although the eye came pretty close.
Der Fliegende Holländer, like much of Wagner, is a rich and heavy meal and at two and a quarter hours without interval can be a difficult one to digest. However, right from the beginning we are in familiar territory as this opera has one of the most famous, and most (ab)used in other contexts, overtures. The curtain rose immediately to a sort of ballet involving Senta and six male dancers portraying omnipresent sea nymphs/evil spirits/angels and set the mood for the evening.
The ship was represented by a giant frame structure suggesting the ribs of a giant hulk as the captain Daland and the rest of the crew climbed up and down ladders and peered out to sea as the malevolent waves lashed behind them. The song of the Helmsman, Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer, is probably the most melodic of the whole opera and Thortsen Bűttner’s rendition was outstanding – but then I’m a sucker for a good tenor. The first appearance of the mysterious Dutchman was spectacular and the evil, menacing Darren Jeffrey squeezed full mileage from the sinister part throughout.
The second act was beautifully done, set in a dressmaker’s workshop full of seamstresses and tailors’ dummies. All the chorus pieces worked well under the direction of Matthew Morley but, of course it was the principal who dominated. Aile Asszonyi impressed as Senta as did Yorck Felix Speer as her sea-captain father, Daland.
The forty-piece orchestra under the baton of Benjamin Levy never put a foot wrong and special mention must go to the director Paul Carr, designer Gary McCann and lighting designer Alex Brok for extracting and delivering every ounce of drama from this most dramatic of operas. Excellent. Michael Hasted 9th May 2018