Saturday 28 February 2015

Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer (Royal Opera House, 2015 - Cinema Live)

Richard Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer
Royal Opera House, 2015

Andris Nelsons, Tim Albery, Bryn Terfel, Adrianne Pieczonka, Michael König, Peter Rose, Ed Lyon, Catherine Wyn-Rogers

Royal Opera House, Live Cinema Season - 24 February 2015

Wagner's operas are notoriously difficult to stage. Leaving aside the unique issues associated with putting on a Ring cycle, even the one-act version of Der fliegende Holländer presents its own challenges. And they are not just technical considerations. Although there might not appear to be much room for a director to manoeuvre a particular reading or concept into an account of ghost ships sailing on the seas, you'd be surprised at how the underlying themes can and have been developed. But do they really get to the heart of what Wagner intended to put across?

Tim Alberry's production for the Royal Opera House's production doesn't attempt anything too ambitious, unless you think that getting right back to the essentials of the work is ambitious, and I suppose when you're talking about Wagner, that might well be true. As tempting as it is to see Wagner himself at the centre of Der fliegende Holländer (his exile, his money problems, his belief in love and sacrifice) and as tempting as it is to apply these issues to modern-day concerns (globalisation, commerce, imperialism, asylum-seeking) - the most important thing about the work is the work itself. And I think even Wagner was aware of that in the first opera where he successfully found his own individual voice.

The Royal Opera House production, without getting too literal, period or traditional in terms of stage directions, makes a good case for Der fliegende Holländer working best when you simply let Wagner take over, when you let the orchestration and the singing carry the full weight and import of the score. The set and the staging don't work against this, nor do they attempt to enhance the impact or effects that can be achieved by the revolutionary score alone. The production design simply provides the necessary platform for all the mood, all the force, all the yearning, all the drama that is in the score itself to be expressed to its fullest extent. Even viewing the performance on screen in a live broadcast - I can only imagine what it must have felt like live - this was a spine-tingling production that just seemed to set Wagner's first true masterwork wide open.

And in the process, the ROH production reveals that spine-tingling is exactly what Der fliegende Holländer ought to be. That might not be revelatory, but the impact that Wagner is aiming for can sometimes get lost in the concept. There's no need to think too hard about it. It's a ghost story, a legend, a story of huge romantic passions. It's certainly informed by Wagner's own personal experiences, his own sensibility and beliefs, as well as by his extraordinary ability to translate those ideas into musical terms. The rush and the roar of those wild seas, the sweeping overwhelming passions, is all there in the music and expressed in Wagner's new approach to the flow of through composition in the music and in the singing. The impact is all the more effective in the one-act version, and the ROH production sustains that enveloping mood extraordinarily well in the staging, but even more so in the all-important musical performance.

The music is the largely left to work its own magic in the overture, and that's spine-tinglingly good on its own - but when it works hand-in-hand with the production, it's all the more effective. The main set - which only changes significantly for Act II's scene in the sewing factory - is a long bowed hull of a ship, with thick ropes and dripping water pooling at the front of the stage. It's chilling enough on its own and effective to support the haunting melodies that have been established in the overture and the Steersman's lament, but the musical motif announcing the arrival of the Dutchman's ship drops the temperature further. All it needs is a huge shadow to cross the set to match the enormity of the ship and the enormity of the intent and passions that lie within it. The set, along with Andris Nelson's wondrous management of the ROH orchestra, gives this impression of vast, mythological forces, and the trick of any production of Der fliegende Holländer as a music-drama is to harness those forces and get them across in human terms.

That's mainly a challenge for the singers, and I've rarely heard one that has been as consistently good across every single role - not forgetting the vital impact of the chorus either. Bryn Terfel certainly carried the world-weary demeanour of the Dutchman well, but the other facets of his personality were also well-characterised. A sense of hope struggling against near-desperation gives him a dangerous allure in his scenes with Daland, but his uncertainty and vulnerability in relation to love and the possibility of Senta failing him is all there too. It's there as much in the singing as the acting performance, and if there are one or two places where the full intensity isn't sustained (Tyrfel had withdrawn from an earlier performance, so might not have been on full form here), it's no less a strong, near-definitive performance.

Just how good the opera can be is shown when you have a Dutchman like this matched against a Senta like Adrianne Pieczonka. Not for a second does her performance waver from her character's dangerous obsession, but the depth of that obsession also extends to the depths of Senta's feelings for this lost man, making it warm and supremely human. It requires none of the shock impact of a grandstanding sacrificial death, the loss of the Dutchman's trust is enough to destroy her here. You really get a sense of that in her performance, which is outstanding on every level. If Michael König's Erik lacked a similar depth, it's only on account of his character's nature being dwarfed by those of Senta and the Dutchman. Peter Rose, announced as suffering a cold, nonetheless sang beautifully and lyrically with great sensitivity as Daland. Ed Lyon made a great impression as a luxuriously warm Steersman, and Catherine Wyn-Rogers was a fine Mary.

The singing was clearly in capable hands, but everything needs to work along with it and revival Daniel Dooner clearly had a good handle on Tim Albery's original stage directions, bringing it together to work as a whole. The importance of the chorus cannot be underestimated, particularly for the intensity they bring to the confrontation between the sailors, their wives and the Dutchman's crew and the Royal Opera Chorus brought this out with rising intensity. The man who really had to bring it all together was Andris Nelsons, and really with every side playing to the top of their game on a such a work as Der fliegende Holländer, that's a huge responsibility. It was more than just a question of marshalling the pace, rhythm and energy of Wagner's score however, and more than just working to the strengths of the singers. Nelsons also captured that spine-tingling edge to Wagner's mythological storytelling, and that indeed was revelatory of where the true greatness and character of the work lies.