Wednesday, 25 February 2015

After the ’flu, a wonderful Dutchman

Egils Silins as the eponymous Dutchman
It would be easy to imagine that our opera going was jinxed. Having missed two performances at the English National Opera in the last few years, for varied reasons, February brought with it a first planned visit to the Royal Opera House to see a first full Wagner opera.

I love the theatre in general, but I was almost giddy with excitement at the prospect of this. But cometh the hour, cometh the ’flu.

On the basis that you cannot go out socially in an evening if you’ve been off sick earlier in the day, I battled into the office that morning, desperately clinging to the belief that it was ‘just a cold’, stuffed to the gills with medication and with precious tickets sitting next to more pills in my bag.

It was all to no avail: by early afternoon, I was running a fever and had to give in. As The Other Half pointed out, I was in no condition to have enjoyed anything much anyway.

The RoH did its bit, trying to sell on my tickets for that evening’s performance.

Then, with amazing good luck, we managed to get hold of more tickets for a week and a half later.

Regular readers will be aware of my Wagner affliction, and I had been wanting to see a full opera for some time.

Der fliegende Holländer seemed the perfect way to start: short by the composer’s standards at a mere two and a half hours, and as his first masterpiece, not as ‘heavy’ as some that followed. Perfect, in other words, for a Wagner ingénue.

And so, last Tuesday, we finally headed out to Covent Garden, emerging from the London Underground past ‘living statues’ and buskers, to pick up our tickets with plenty of time for a meal before the performance.

We decided to try La Ballerina, a small Italian restaurant just over the road from the opera house.

An oppressive factory
It looked packed, but we got a table easily enough and settled down to order. On the upside, my carbonara was perfect pre-theatre comfort food and the tiramisu that followed was perfectly pleasant.

On the down side – the waiter knocked a glass of red wine over, soaking the table cloth and leaving me with damp attire. Fortunately, it had dried by the time we left.

The Royal Opera House itself is vast and labyrinthine, but we made it to our seats high up in the amphitheatre. High they may have been, but we had a perfect view of the stage and orchestra.

This led to The Other Half looking down and commenting: “Is that really six basses?” Well, yes – it is a band for a Wagner opera.

Unfortunately, the dreaded lurg had not finished with its jinxing of my operatic experience, as it was announced that Bryn Terfel, who was playing the eponymous Dutchman, was ill, and bass baritone Egils Silins had been flown in from Hamburg to sing the role.

My not having heard of him indicates nothing: he was excellent.

As for the opera as a whole, it was wonderful. Seeing something like this live makes you appreciate the sense of spectacle and scale.

It also makes me appreciate the awesome vocal technique: not only were the singers making perfectly sure that you could hear their voices throughout the auditorium – even when singing quietly (the hardest thing) – but you could clearly hear the words too.

Adrianne Pieczonka as Senta
The story is straightforward: cursed to roam the seas for eternity, the Dutchman’s one chance of redemption comes on one day every seven years when he can walk the land again.

If, in that time, he can find a woman who will be true to him unto death, he will be released from the curse.

That day strikes and he finds himself ashore in Norway. Meeting a sea captain, Daland, the Dutchman uses his vast hoard of treasure to buy the hand of Daland’s daughter.

But Senta has been dreaming of the Dutchman herself and is more than ready to accept his hand as she wants to be the one to save him.

However, when the Dutchman realises that Senta has turned her back on her former love, Erik, he realises that he would be dooming her and he leaves without her.

This is the second revival of Tim Albery’s 2009 production and it’s easy to see why they’ve brought it back.

There are two principle ways to approach Der fliegende Holländer: first, by looking back to Wagner’s Romantic musical roots, as are evident, or by looking forward to what he would go on to create – which is also evident.

The Dutchman's crew
The darkness here is particularly appropriate for the themes that Wagner was exploring, and the lighting and staging really add to this.

In Senta, we see a woman who dreams of breaking free from her oppressive existence working in a factory: she alone refuses to join in with the spinning song that the women’s chorus sings as they work.

And her dreams of saving the Dutchman – ignoring the dangers, turning her back on those who love her – reveal a naïve or deluded desire to believe in a fairytale future. Perhaps not unlike teenagers running away to Syria right now.

The cast is universally excellent, including the three – that’s right: three – choruses of over 60 singers. Wagnerian to the core!

Of the principals, I’ve already mentioned Silins , while David Rose as Daland, Michael König as Erik (a pretty thankless role) and Ed Lyon as the Steersman are all in wonderful voice.

And Adrianne Pieczonka was wonderful as Senta, with a clear, brilliant soprano voice.

Andris Nelsons’s conducting of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (with those six basses) was faultless.

So, that was it – my first Wagner: great drama, wonderful spectacle and sublime music that lived on in my head.

Suffice it to say that it’s extremely doubtful that it will be my last Wagner opera or my last visit to the Royal Opera House.

* Production photos: Clive Barda and Mike Hoban

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