THE FLYING DUTCHMAN
Steven Gallop (Daland) and Lee Abrahmsen (Senta)
Continuing the wealth of Wagner performances that have festooned the citys theatres in recent years, Melbourne Opera follows its Tannhauser/Lohengrin/Tristan successes with this mostly praiseworthy production (director Suzanne Chaundy, sets Andrew Bailey, costumes Verity Hunt-Ballard, lighting Rob Sowinski) of the composer’s trail-blazing initial contribution to German Romanticism. The principal line-up is an impressive one, particularly soprano Lee Abrahmsen adding another excellent interpretation to her repertoire with the company.
Also functioning efficiently was the MO Orchestra under Anthony Negus, here working under favourable conditions in a real pit. You could cavil with some horn work – an occasional spliced note, some ragged group entries – but the bulk of the instrumental output came across with suitable gusto after the woodwind had settled into a communally agreed pitch following the matchless overture. Since the opera was played as intended – without a break – fatigue became pretty obvious in the final pages. Yet the general fabric made a favourable impression during the greater part of the score, even if timpanist Arwen Johnston, situated at stalls level, sounded over-willing at climactic points.
For this production, the MO went all out to assemble a large chorus, necessary if you’re going to have a successful confrontation between the two ships’ crews in the final act. The numbers were certainly there and made a brave showing on stage, although you could have wished for better balance throughout. For instance, the Steuermann, lass die Wacht! chorus that opens the last act came over with appreciable swagger and an aggressive heft to the strong beats but the top tenors lacked heft when set against the other three lines and their top B flats and glancing As sounded thin.
Act 2’s Summ’ und brumm’ spinning chorus opening also seemed under-powered at the top even though Wagner is very kind to the singers involved. Only at the er denkt nach Haus chords did you feel that the parts were properly balanced in dynamic terms. Later, when the women participated at the conclusion to Senta’s Ya ho-hoe! ballad with their moving Ach! Wo weilt sie commentary/coda, the singers’ delivery showed a fine level of preparation and ensemble.
Negus experienced a few unsettling moments as far as the chorus was concerned, most notably in the first act where the sailors were in danger of over-running the beat – a regular problem even with companies more experienced than this one. But the searching test, when the maximum numbers are involved during the final act, revealed little of this lack of discipline, the choral complex solid for the most part. On the other hand, it was hard to fault any member of the principal sextet in this respect and you heard very little of the bar-line ignoring that has bedevilled previous productions of later works like The Ring and Tristan in particular where rhythmic flummery all too often becomes the prevailing texture.
Right from his Die Frist ist um soliloquy, Darren Jeffrey had the measure of the title character’s role, revealing a forceful timbre at the Bergehne Hoffnung! outburst and a rich, carrying power in the final peroration. Further along in the action, the singer almost contrived to make credible the Wie aus die Ferne duet where the doomed sailor thinks he might have found redemption; the effect reached not through a sudden brightness or giving in to the score’s major-key benignity but more by way of a sort of relieved resignation, to such a point that the consoling melodic fluency here and in the end-of-act trio with Daland was articulated with appropriate urgency rather than elation.
Even in the melodramatic final scene, Jeffrey brought into play a vocal determination that gave an unexpected briskness to the character’s final address, Erfahre das Geschick. Even to the untutored eye (or ear), the Dutchman is doomed from the start but the betrayal he feels in these last strophes needs to be unrelieved, so that Senta’s sacrifice stands unalloyed. In this respect Jeffrey dominated the drama’s resolution, his last self-identification a marvellously exposed bravura passage here handled with excellent forcefulness.
Abrahmsen’s Act 2 also contributed significantly to the production’s commitment to steadily advancing tragedy. After the unsettling fixation that Senta shows in her opening scene, undistracted by ex-nurse Mary and the spinning girls, the soprano handled her interchange with Erik comfortably enough, sustaining the girl’s preoccupation and giving her wooer little hope despite the appealing charm of his Mein Herz voll Treue address. Mind you, there’s not much chance to amplify Senta’s dramatic range in the duet/trio that concludes this part of the opera because the situation offers only a completion of the aspirations with which it began.
As with Jeffrey, Abrahmsen infused her work with a firmness in articulation and dynamic that was constant across the work’s span. Wagner, despite the reputation he had of drowning out his vocalists, treated them considerately and Senta enjoys as much of this pre-Brunnhilde civility as Elisabeth or Elsa; a brace of high Bs in the Terzett strike you as flashy sparks that shine out strongly in this context but Abrahmsen has a wealth of musicianship, more than enough to weld this opportunity for bravura into a coherent ensemble.
As Daland, the wealth-loving father of Senta, Steven Gallop did his best to differentiate the character’s vocal personality from that of the Dutchman, tending to strain his line in the opening exchanges with the Steersman and sailors but making fair weather of the substantial Wie? Hort ich recht? duet that occupies the second half of Act 1; in this case, an agreable stretch with two basses that sat comfortably side-by-side. Roxane Hislop was hardly pressed by the small role of Mary: 24 lines only and many of them conversational couplets of no great moment.
Michael Lapina’s Steuermann made one of the opera’s happier characters, most obviously so in the Mit Gewitter und Sturm solo of the first scene which combines an unaccompanied upward scale with a chordal after-strophe: one of the composer’s happier and simpler delineations of personality. Lapina’s lavishness of delivery, informed by an infectious bonhomie in his stage presence, opened this tale of small happy love and great tragic infatuation with a telling charm.
But the vocal surprise of the premiere came with the night’s Erik, Rosario La Spina. I’ve not heard this tenor for some years and was taken aback by his bright sound-colour, both in a ringing Act 2 solo just before he comes to grips with Senta’s preoccupation and delaying tactics, and later the Willst jenes Tag’s last attempt to bring her back to the normal level of inter-personal intercourse that she is inflexibly determined to discard.
Neither of these exposed arias comes close to the inspiration that the score reaches at its more fraught stretches, chiefly because Erik’s vocal line is almost Italianate in its sentiment and shape. But the music suits this uncomplicated man so aptly that you tend to ignore how out-of-step it is with the surging, harrowing scenes that are the work’s natural setting. I’ve read somewhere that this is La Spina’s first essay at Wagner: a pity it’s taken so long. I’ve sat through many a Siegfried and Siegmund who have worked for hours to less effect than this artist’s few minutes of exposure.
On a final carping note, the production offered surtitles above the Regent proscenium. From my seat, half-way up the stalls, the screened English translation was illegible. This could have been attributable to advancing years and its concomitant failing eyesight except that recent experiences in other theatres from roughly the same position have been more happy.
There are two further performances of The Flying Dutchman: Tuesday February 5 and Thursday February 7.