The central duet between the Dutchman (Egils Silins) and Senta (Anja Kampe) was gripping in it's horrific and seemingly inevitable progress between cursed mariner and his potential saviour in this evening's revival of Wagner's "Romantic opera" Der fliegende Holländer at Covent Garden. At the end of 140 minutes of continuous music drama I felt I had been guided expertly through an emotional mangle.
I find it difficult to know what to make of Der fliegende Holländer: composed around 1840 and first performed in 1843 in Dresden, audiences clearly found it challenging at the time. It is a fully completed work but it leaves me somewhat perplexed 150 years later. Perhaps the best explanation - if one is needed - is that Wagner the artist and Wagner the person were both searching. The actual stormy sea crossing which Wagner attributed as the inspiration was just the trigger which helped him write out his wanderings in a form of an opera of a mystic legend. Der fliegende Holländer appeared nearly twenty years before Gounod's “Faust”, that I saw a few weeks ago. They're comparable because they are both about a metaphysical bargain based on myths, but Charles Gounod's “Faust” comes over as a far less radical score despite the later date; that's an indication of just how progressive was the thinking of the young Richard Wagner.
There are many tantalising pre-echoes in this music of Wagner's later achievements: if the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde is considered the first flowering of atonality, then surely there are the pre-echoes or seeds here in Der fliegende Holländer. And looking back, this is a fully complete opera in three acts as a development of the German opera style.
Wagner's heroines, particularly the ones in his early operas, seem only to have discovered idealistic partnerships and certainly not to have discovered or developed any physical sensuality or sexuality. That telling omission, which seems to be clearly explained by Wagner's personal life, is party compensated by a reliance on symbolism and allows Wagner to deal with the big themes of life and death; love, trust and betrayal. The shared journey of Der fliegende Holländer is to work through the youthful Wagner's exploration of these themes.
Der fliegende Holländer is so full of symbolism that a literal production would not help. Royal Opera's current clever, slightly abstract, production is pretty good at providing a staging which helps explain the action although for me it didn't reveal any further insights. It suggests a lot and doesn't force a literal interpretation on anything, that's fine: it lets the music speak. The costumes progress from reminiscent of the mid-nineteenth century to being present day and I didn't see the justification for that so it was a distraction.
The conductor, Jeffrey Tate, clearly has a huge sympathy and understanding of the score which delivered a great partnership between the large orchestra and the singers. The brass was impeccable.
The Dutchman, Egils Silins, started a little cool (maybe that was the characterisation?) soon warmed up and was singing convincingly enthusiastically by the time he met Senta, who could have saved him from his fate.
Senta, Anja Kampe, emerged from the crowd and took her place centre stage and sang with huge commitment: this was a live performance of a long opera so it was fine to very occasionally over commit and we had a thrilling performance. Steersman, John Tessier, sung heartily and was rewarded with a dunking in real water by his ship mates.
The audience at Covent Garden was one of the most committed, appreciative I have been amongst at the Royal Opera House. No Blackberry's being surreptitiously texted, no iPhones posting updates on FaceBook. Is that a characteristic of a Wagner audience or has the penny dropped at last that it is smarter to not to use a smart phone at the opera?
Der fliegende Holländer
Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House