Sunday 6 May 2012

The Flying Dutchman at the London Coliseum

Jonathan Kent's new production of The Flying Dutchman at the London Coliseum (seen 5 May 2012) was clearly meant to come with the subtitle 'Senta's Dream'. During the overture, which received a powerful, thrilling performance from Edward Gardner and the ENO Orchestra, the curtain rose on an atmospheric video (Nina Dunn for Knifedge) of the sea which coalesced into the young Senta (either Aoife Checkland or Evie Grattan) in her attic bedroom with a huge window overlooking the sea. Daland (Clive Bayley) came to say good by to her as he went to sea and left her with a book about the Dutchman.

Senta in her bed remained centre state for the first scene, she covered the steersman (Robert Murray) with her duvet when he fell asleep and the Dutchman (James Creswell) made his entrance from her bed. All well and good; after all the opera is very dependant on Senta's obsession with the Dutchman. The mature Senta (Orla Bylan) got up from the same bed to make her entrance.

These first scenes worked pretty well dramaturgically; the concept intriguing enough to make you wonder how Kent was going to proceed. Though I have to confess that I found the presences of the young Senta and her bed in the middle of Daland's ship ultimately rather distracting.

Kent had opted to set the opera in modern times. This represented a neat solution to the problem set by the decision to perform the single act version, with no convenient intervals for set changes. The best solution to this problem was Ian Judge's production at Covent Garden, but its complex moving platforms proved its undoing. Here Kent and his designer Paul Brown, opted for a single set which could double as the modern rather industrial ship and the factory where the women worked (there was no quayside setting, everything took place in the factory). Though this meant that the scene on Daland's ship had little feeling of the sea, that was all in the orchestra. The Dutchman's ship, when it appeared was a 19th century rigged ship and the Dutchman (James Creswell) was a very Romantic figure in 19th century frock coat.

The spinning workshop had become a factory where the women made tourist tat, souvenir ships in bottles. Erik (Stuart Skelton) was the security guard. When Daland and the Dutchman made their entry, things started to get a little confused.

Kent and Brown used a huge window at the back of the set to provide lurid glimpses of the Dutchman's ship and other shadows. And it was here that the Dutchman first appeared, before entering via another door, stage left. It appeared for all the world as if Creswell was supposed to enter through the door in the big window but that it had stuck. Now this may or may not have been the case, but such was the dramaturgy you couldn't really tell. And once he had entered, Kent seemed content to keep Creswell in the badly lit shadows. And the long scene with Senta took place amidst the confused detritus of the factory. Despite diving the Dutchman a Romantic visual outline, Kent seemed disinclined to give him the full impact of a Romantic archetype.

Both musically and dramatically this scene sagged. Dramatically static and visually confused, even Gardner and the orchestra did not seem able to help. But Gardner recovered the dramatic momentum for the remainder of the opera, though I am not sure that Kent did.

Musically this was a terrifically strong performance, but so far in the performance music and drama had been more or less hand in hand.

Boylan's Senta was bright voiced and dramatic; the top notes in the ballad were paced with admirable clarity. Elsewhere when the role went lower I was perhaps aware that Senta might be towards the dramatic limits of Boylan's voice. But taken all in all this was a brilliant, musical performance.

Creswell's Dutchman had a Romantic look and a fine dark hued voice, easily riding the orchestra and providing an aural thrill. But dramatically he was rather solid, and his stiff stage presence seemed to have not been helped by Kent. Clive Bayley was a fine Daland, suitably grasping but sympathetic and nicely sung.

I can't help thinking that Kent and his designer had it in for Erik, Stuart Skelton is a big guy and his security guard's uniform did him no favours. But vocally he was nearly ideal. For once, ENO seems to have cast a heavy dramatic opera with voices which were of sufficient strength and weight, but all brought brilliance, focus and beauty. This was Wagner with a sense of line and without the screaming. Whatever the limits of the production's dramaturgy, it sounded terrific. Susanna Tudor-Thomas was Mary, considerably less frumpy than usual; and Robert Murray made an excellent and hard-working steersman.

Gardner had gone for the original 1840's version of the opera so we had the advantage of Wagner's brassy first thoughts in the overture and the ending. And Gardner's confident handling of the overture carried into the opening scene, with the chorus on form.

If the opera had stopped after the scene between Senta and the Dutchman, I would have been well content.

Instead, for the harbour-side scene Kent seemed to throw everything at it. The party took place in the factory, with lots of unfunny novelty costumes and blow-up things. The Dutchman's ship was reduced to a shadow through the window and the ghostly chorus from his ship was performed over the loud-speakers providing something which was rather nasty and not ghostly at all. Senta was abused and apparently raped, and it all developed in such a way that it appeared to be in Senta's head. Kent made no attempt to find modern archetypes for the ghostly horror of Wagner's music and this scene was no match for David Pountney's brilliant production from the 90's. In fact, Kent's whole premise for the staging seems to have been to take the supernatural out of the piece.

For the final scene, the location was as before with the detritus from the party. No Dutchman's ship, just its vague shadow through the window. The Dutchman disappeared down a trap like a pantomime villain (no puff of smoke luckily) and Senta committed suicide with a broken bottle. There was, of course, no transfiguration.

By opting for the earlier ending, the music was nowhere near as transfigurative as Wagner's later, Tristan influenced re-write; but still. Gardner and the orchestra and the singers all blazed away with fire and drama. It was a pity that what we saw was a confused mess.

The piece was sung in David Pountney's excellent translation and the diction was generally admirable. Chorus and orchestra were all on fine form and you can't help wishing that the ENO had their own label recording scheme, this was a production that would sound great on CD.

Producers and conductors are rather fond of stating that the single act version of the opera works better dramatically. But generally, they don't have to sit through 130 minutes of music in poor theatre seats with arthritic knees. After about an hour I usually have a fight for attention between my knees and the stage. Generally, the stage wins if only by a whisker. But this time, I'm afraid my knees won. Kent seems to have decided to ditch supernatural and romantic archetypes but failed to convince as kitchen sink drama.

This was a production which sounded fab and almost worked. It would be nice to think that Kent would be offered a chance to tinker and re-work. But given the expense of staging an opera like this, I doubt that he will.

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