Review: 'Der Fliegende Holländer', Adelaide, 2009

By Terence Watson
For me, the most arresting and memorable Dutchman I’ve seen live was the 2003 Bayreuth production directed by Claus Guth, conducted electrifyingly by Marc Albrecht, but sung with mixed results by Jukka Rasilainen (Dutchman), Jaako Rhyaenen (Daland), Adrienne Dugger (Senta - the best voice by far), Endrik Wottrich (Erik - hunky to look at, but not a patch on Stuart Skelton’s power, lyricism and accuracy), Uta Priew (Mary - a bit past it) and Norbert Ernst (the helmsman - had a much bigger, rather scary, acting part than usual). I reviewed this production for the Wagner Society in 2004 (www.wagner-nsw.org.au/reviews/004_review02.html). In short, it had an intelligent, if somewhat old-fashioned Freudian, interpretation to offer, plus some very scary marionettish Dutch sailors singing and dancing like demented automatons at the end.

The Adelaide production tried to create interesting atmospheric effects with blue & green lasers for the sea and a red one for the Dutchman, although I’m sure that the red laser failed at the moment of the Dutchman’s final entrance in the Saturday night finale. However, when the lasers weren’t being used, the very bare stage for the rest of the time was anti-climactic. I should mention the treasure-chest that rose from under the stage radiating golden light when the Dutchman tempted Daland with an offer he couldn’t refuse - and then got the extra offer of his daughter’s hand as well as a place to stay! Very effective. The most obvious “interpretation” offered by Chris Drummond, the director, was to make more explicit the sexual element in the story line. While it is often present in other productions, memorably in the Vulva figurehead for the Dutchman’s ship in the 1978 Bayreuth production (recorded on film in 1985 – Director Harry Kupfer) out of which Simon Estes dramatically makes his appearance - births onto land again.

In the Adelaide production, the sexual element manifested itself fleetingly in the passionate kisses Wegner plants on the rather wooden Medlyn when Senta agrees to marry him - and then again as they leave at the end of act 2. The poor sexually deprived Dutch sailors get to have a grope with a few of the female townspeople - a bit unrealistic perhaps given what traditionally happens between sailors on long (7 years in their case) voyages!? And not very sexual – more like harassment. Anyhow, this element of sex in the production seemed a rather lukewarm afterthought. In fact, I wondered whether the very down-to-earth Wegner was trying to inject an element of his raunchy Alberich in the Ring into this otherwise very unerotic production.

The other intriguing, but ultimately jarring, new element (to me at least), was Drummond giving the Dutchman magical powers that are used mainly to fend off Erik’s threatening advances in their final encounter. As Erik approaches the Dutchman to rescue Senta, the Dutchman throws a spell at him that knocks him to his knees and keeps him there until Senta and he leave. Exactly what Drummond is suggesting about the Dutchman is not clear to me as it confused me about the Dutchman’s status. Is he just a cursed man, or is he a subject of Satan now endowed with some of the Devil’s power? I thought he was the former, but if he is the latter, it begs questions about the extent of his magical powers. Why, for example, couldn’t he cast a love spell to bring a woman to love him and so free him?

Of the performances, only Skelton (Erik) brought any evident passion and commitment to his performance. Wegner relied on intense gazes and dramatic flourishes (and the odd magical gesture) and Medlyn on a bit of old-fashioned simpering at times. Sumegi, fortunately, brought an element of humour to his performance, in recognition, perhaps, of Wagner’s apparent intention to satirise such naive opportunism and greed. Katherine Tier (Mary) has such a little role that it is hard to make an impression—maybe that’s why she “volunteered” to be the main gropee in the Dutch sailors’ excursion onto land. Angus Wood as the Steersman at least gets to dance with Mary, as well as sing his sleepy song at the beginning.

Of the voices, Skelton was a joy to listen to, as he was as Siegmund in the Adelaide Ring, with a lyrical line and accurate intonation and dramatic delivery. Next was Sumegi, although he began on our first night (Thursday, 12 November) with a bit of a wobble and indistinct articulation. However, for most of the final performance (Saturday, 14 November 2009), he was much more secure and relaxed and easier to understand. Next, I thought, was Wood, with his relatively clean and accurate light tenor, although he was straining a little with the higher notes. Although Wegner puts much passion into his delivery, his voice is very gruff these days, as if paying for years of smoking. The gruffness adds much to the characterisation, but not to the pleasure of listening to the sound as there is little lyrical line left. Wegner appeared to relax a little more on the final night as well, and some of his old familiar ringing notes found their way into the hall. Medlyn was very disappointing, with many notes either not there, glancingly hit or, according to some reports I heard, dropped down an octave so they could be made at all! At times on the final night she relaxed enough for some of the fine voice that I remember fromParsifals in Adelaide and Wellington to re-emerge, but in between it was a struggle that she didn’t win. Tier seemed to have a pleasant, but not very strong voice that was often drowned by the orchestra, despite the fine acoustics of the Festival Hall.

The chorus deserves a special mention—at least they all seemed to be having fun and singing cleanly, clearly and accurately and with impressive volume for a relatively small group. (In comparison, there seemed to be many dozens on stage for the Bayreuth production!) The spinning chorus was a kind of circle dance with the women each twirling a string of fairy lights. Initially, in the dark it was quite pretty, but, after the third repeat of the chorus, one began to wonder if the effect was not sliding into kitsch. Maybe the spinners saved it by their evident naïveté and delight in just singing the lovely melody. When they joined their menfolk to taunt the skeleton Dutch sailors, their combined “Wachet auf!” was one of the most thrilling moments of the whole production.

Now for the orchestra—I’m sure that they would have been better without a conductor at all! While the overture began well, with nice forward momentum, the slow section following (the love theme) nearly died of inertia and didn’t bode well for a well-balanced performance. Indeed, this pattern was followed for the whole opera: as soon as the markings changed to lento or largo or similar slow tempi, the music almost ground to a halt. The slow tempi certainly didn’t make for gripping, emotionally-charged music-making. As one of my friends said afterwards, these sudden slowdowns really showed up the stitching between arias and scenes that isn’t as evident in Wagner’s later works. I thought the orchestra generally played very well, with only a few brass fluffs. Another friend thought that some of the entries of various sections were a bit ragged, but I felt that if that were happening it was probably because of the erratic conducting and the musicians not being sure when their cue would arrive.

Despite all my reservations, I am grateful to the State Opera of South Australia for putting on another Wagner opera. I hope that they will continue this fine tradition and that some godfather/sugar daddy will rapidly emerge to pay for the Ring Cycle to be restaged before the sets disintegrate or are sent to the tip.