Opera North’s Dutchman

4 Jul

In the year’s break before their complete Ring, Opera North is continuing its Wagner work with The Flying Dutchman – another of their semi-staged concert versions with the orchestra at the back and projections.  I caught it at the Sage in Gateshead on 3rd July.

Can I begin by lamenting the old days?  My first Dutchman was staged by Opera North in 1979 at the Empire Theatre in Sunderland.  It had Peter Glossop as the Dutchman and Arlene Saunders as a first rate Senta.  It was fully staged in what felt like an excellent, fairly traditional production.  I remember the orchestra and chorus being excellent.  What has changed to  make it so difficult for the regional companies to stage Wagner?  Is it that their house orchestras and chorus are simply smaller?  Is it so much more expensive to stage Dutchman than, say, Grimes or Don Carlos?   Or was this simply a cheap way of getting this opera done?

It’s not that this wasn’t a very good performance but, unlike the Ring which, to an extent, benefited from the simplicity of the semi-staging so that you could concentrate on the words, Dutchman is a much more conventional work and much less interesting musically.  It benefits less from the concert staging and needs more space.  It’s essentially a late romantic opera, building on Freischutz.  It plays on atmosphere and spectacle and, for me, this performance didn’t properly address that.

Musically, it went a long way.  Richard Farnes conducted an outstandingly good orchestral performance.  The performance was clear but also very exciting.  Farnes found terror and melodrama and passion in the score.  The orchestra played with red hot intensity.  The chorus also were excellent – singing the words clearly and precisely. They made a thrilling noise.  The Royal Opera House chorus has been outstanding in this opera but this, far smaller chorus, was just as good. My one regret was that there weren’t enough of them to have a different group sing the ghosts in Act III.  The playing and singing of both was of international class.

The cast was good, but not quite on the same level.  Bela Pererncz sang strongly as the Dutchman but others have given more agony, more sheer emotion.  As Senta, Alwyn Mellor reminded me of what a good singer she is in these roles: gleaming tone, clear words and absolute confidence.  It’s not a big voice and she might not come across so well in a big theatre, but this was very satisfying singing.  Mats Algrem was a fine Daland, though his heavy vibrato will not be to everyone’s taste.  His acting was the most convincing of them all.  Mati Turi was no better or worse than most Erik’s – a big voice, but constricted tone and little by way of acting.  Mark LeBroq was a first rate Steersman.

Peter Mumford’s production didn’t have the same clarity or interest as his versions of the Ring.  This opera is not about conversations or ideas in the same way and the direction of the conventional duets and trios didn’t grip or, particularly, interest.  The background of waves and hands and rigging seemed decorative rather than helpful and you missed the theatrical tricks and sheer space that a good production can give.  It felt cramped.

The single act Dutchman makes for a long evening.  It just worked because of the quality of the orchestral playing and choral singing but you came out having enjoyed the evening, but not elated, and aware that, quite simply, this isn’t as good as the Ring.

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