For the first time in over two decades, The Flying Dutchman returned to Auckland in a new production by NZ Opera in conjunction with Queensland Opera. Anticipation and expectation for a big production is high, so was it worth the wait ?
On the whole, the positives definitely outweigh the negatives. As the opera progresses, the better it gets.
The drama starts immediately with NZ Opera Music Director Wyn Davies procuring some impressive sounds from the Auckland Philharmonia. With sweeping gestures, both conductor and orchestra convey all the key themes in the overture and prepare the ground wonderfully for what it is to follow.
For an opera novice without much idea of the plot, the meaning of the Act 1 staging which then appears would be hard to decipher. Even for someone familiar with the music and the libretto, it takes a little time to get one’s bearings. The crew of Daland’s ship are holed up in a plasticky box enclosure. One also has to use an active imagination to imagine the Dutchman’s ship which consists of a huge moveable panel which, according to NZ Opera General Manager Aidan Lang, is designed to resemble the Batavia, which was shipwrecked near Perth. But it gives rise to a number of rhetorical questions. The stage is sloped and there are chairs on stage. Why ? Is the nude girl who pops up in the ship supposed to represent an illusion or dream of the crew as they near home ? Does the ship have a roof ? Why does the Dutchman board Daland’s ship without the crew not realising it ? Perhaps he is more ghost than man at the point, it’s hard to tell. Queensland audiences will get to ponder these questions in 2015 when the production is staged there.
Regardless of these issues, one has to focus on the music. Welsh baritone Jason Howard is a good Dutchman both vocally and in terms of his presence on stage. From Act 1 onwards, he strongly conveys the unsmiling anguish and world-weariness of the sailor cursed to sail continuously for seven years seeking salvation from a faithful and devoted woman. Kiwi Paul Whelan as Daland has effective stage presence with his height but was sometimes overwhelmed by the orchestra which was a pity. The ship’s company made up of the male members of the Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus are a motley crew indeed.
Act 2 was more coherent in terms of staging although the traditional female spinning chorus, including former Goldenhorse lead singer Kirsten Morrell, is replaced by a factory setting with the assembly of male mannequins. It must be a rather odd village or town in Norway which has the menfolk out sailing and the women working in a clothes factory but it matters not.
Irish soprano Orla Boylan is a highly experienced Senta and conveys the naivete of her character and her obsession with the Dutchman with the eyes as well as her voice. Boylan is certainly the strongest of the cast vocally and with clever directing, is a magnet for the female chorus as they taunt and tease her about her dreaminess. In the ballad of the Dutchman, the chorus surround around Senta to listen only to flee when she takes things to her fantasy world beyond the comprehension of just about everyone.
Reality is not far away and English tenor Peter Auty is impressive as Senta’s boyfriend Erik. The textbooks portray the character as being the link to the humdrum existence of the village and a normal life as well as simple goodness and an honest heart. Auty gives the character a touch of complexity and conveys the frustration in love he feels as well as his frustration of Daland’s pursuit of a wealthy husband for Senta over his simple poverty.
Indeed, the duets between Senta and Erik and The Dutchman and Senta are true highlights of Act 2 and of this production. Clear direction and characterisations with powerful singing and orchestral accompaniment make them easy to understand even without surtitles and a pleasure to listen to and watch.
Act 3 opens with the Steersmans’ Chorus, who are in fine voice. Steersman Shaun Dixon in drag is something you won’t easily forget either. As the pizza boxes, chip packets and cheap beer litter the stage, the choruses merge and taunt the ghost ship crew complete with twerking. The choruses’ exuberance is memorable and as the ghost crew come to life and terrify everybody, the music reaches fever pitch as the Dutchman reveals himself to be the legendary wanderer of the seas, seemingly absolving Senta from having to be his eternal salvation. The dramatic conclusion at the end matches the dramatic music and necessity of the giant panel is finally explained. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it.
Comparisons to the legendary 1992 Auckland production are inevitable. That production brought chills to the spine and was thrilling both for its musicality and novelty. While perhaps not as enchanting as that or indeed NZ Opera’s production of Madame Butterfly earlier this year, this Flying Dutchman is worth seeing. With only two more performances in Auckland, you’ll need to get in quick.