The Flying Dutchman, @ENO.
On Tuesday May 1st I feel I truly lost my professional opera virginity, insofar as it was my first live fully staged non-contemporary opera. In 2011 I saw the premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. On that occasion I expected to be dazzled but was underwhelmed.
On Tuesday we plumped for a repertoire stalwart, Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman at the ENO. My anticipation paid off and we were wowed.
My thoughts are of conversations I have had with theatre friends in the past. Friends who have worked as actors and/or directors, creating contemporary theatre and looking as all artists do, analytically at any performance of their chosen art they go to see. A pertinent point for me was how often in performance, directing and staging of opera (and perhaps widely musical theatre or plays with music) can often be uninspiring, well within the comfort zones of convention, and at worst, backward.
For me, ENO defied convention in its staging, which highlighted the tragic heroine Senta’s development, a young woman turned debutante turned potential wife. She is on stage throughout the whole opera, though Wagner does not write for her in Act One. Director Jonathan Kent involves a child Senta in bed, centre stage; her innocence and our empathy well highlighted. The chorus scenes were a delight; busy, magical and often light hearted, the ensemble thoroughly enjoying themselves, wielding the music with an impressive combination of beauty and power.
I do wonder why some audience members turn their noses right up when such works are not performed in their original languages. I for one felt like I could engage much more with the material having it sung at me in a language I understand, sadly not having the luxury of being fluent in German, and nineteenth century German at that. I can see I suppose that the inflection of the language is inherent in the inflection of the music and they do marry but, I place my need as an audience member to comprehend what’s going on above that. Surtitles notwithstanding, I’d rather watch the action and engage with the performers than watch the libretto go by like the stopping itinerary that scrolls by overhead on a train.
Also, I was very much surprised by the level of the visual effects. During the overture, somehow by some trick of the light it looked like Senta’s bed was being engulfed by stormy seas - all in some kind of 3D - the throb of the waves in slick counterpoint to Wagner’s dark, billowing score. I’m clearly a complete lighting layman but whatever it was they did I loved it and its allusions to cinematic depth. Someone who’s only seen opera once before was not expecting to see on stage.
Almost as an unfortunate by product of this, some of the more static, conversational moments between the leads, particularly around the end of act two and the beginning of act three, for me, sagged. The ‘stand-and-sing-it’ approach doesn’t really work for me, but one could argue that this is where Wagner’s music ought to glow and speak for itself, and perhaps my wide-eyes were simply hungry for more sassy white-trash factory-working multi-tasking sopranos to assemble some more ships-in-bottles. Also, can one avoid this type of staging during monologue delivery when it would be inappropriate for the characters to, say, juggle or ride around on a unicycle.
Having said that, I always find that a sign of a great performance is if I have the urge to leapfrog the balcony and get involved myself. About two minutes in I decided I wanted to write an opera. Nice work!