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The Flying Dutchman – a Review by George Fleeton
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The Flying Dutchman (Der fliegende Hollӓnder).

A review by George Fleeton.

George Fleeton

George Fleeton

It was a pleasure, after two years, to attend my first Northern Ireland Opera production, in the Grand Opera House Belfast, on February 15.

The opera was Richard Wagner’s nautical fantasy, and his fourth work, The Flying Dutchman, which was first seen and heard in Dresden in 1843, when the composer was 30.

It is very unusual to see any Wagner opera fully staged in Ireland and, in that context, Wide Open Opera’s presentation of Tristan und Isolde in Dublin, last September/October, was first out of the traps.

(That production was reviewed here, on Down News, on November 19: see Opera in Ireland: State of Play – Part 1of 5).

Whereas that Tristan was a revival of a tired, 20-year-old Welsh National Opera production, NI Opera’s Dutchman scored better in that it was fresh, brand new, very ambitious (50 singers plus the 63-member Ulster Orchestra), with  locally-born principals (Caproni, Allen and Curran), and it appropriately marked the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth (on May 22, 1813 in Leipzig).

However there was no indication, to my knowledge, that this production of the Dutchman would be given in English, until you squint at the top of the unnumbered page titled Synopsis in the Programme booklet (why are important parts of these publications printed on black paper with tiny white print?) and you find that David Pountney’s translation is being used.

Pountney is the recently appointed head of Welsh National Opera, a company which never comes to N Ireland any more.

Any opera company worth its salt wears the language in which it is producing like a badge of honour: up-front information which advises audiences in advance of what expect.

If you go to the London Coliseum you know that English National Opera productions are in English.

Chandos’ Opera in English CDs are precisely that.

Several people who spoke to me on the night were unimpressed by this and even queried the absence of surtitles.

The second act of Oliver Mears’ production is brilliant, that is, it is so overlit that it feels it doesn’t belong to Acts 1 and 3.

We are in the sewing room of Daland’s house.

Daland is a wealthy Norwegian skipper who, in Act 1, when sheltering from bad weather in Sandwigen fjord, seven miles from port, has come across a massive ship, its unnamed Captain and an invisible crew, but no blood-red sail.

In next to no time, Daland has sold his daughter Senta to the Captain for eight suitcases of gold trinkets.

Meanwhile back in the Magdalene laundry-style sewing room, with its prominent crucifix and a

portrait of the boss on the wall, Mary is supervising the operatives at work, and Senta (in love with Erik, Paul McNamara)) is singing the Ballad of the Flying Dutchman.

Both these singers (Doreen Curran and Giselle Allen) made superlative contributions to this production.

Curran (Mary) doesn’t have much to do, but when she was sitting, stage right, knitting, listening, during Allen’s big number, you couldn’t take your eyes off her.

And it’s when the Captain (Bruno Caproni) first, and finally, has Senta and the stage to himself that this production fires on all its Wagnerian cylinders in their big set piece three-part duet.

This is where we get a good look at what the composer called total art, the coherent unity of all the arts, which he believed was truth beyond fact, which enables our spirit to rise and to soar above the quotidian, taking us to dimensions beyond the mundane.

Even without the Ring cycle, Wagner achieved this with Tannhӓuser, Tristan, Meistersinger andParsifal.

Surely this is what great opera in performance should do to us?

Unfortunately an underpowered Ulster Orchestra, and a few bits of misjudged comic relief at the end of Act 2, considerably blunted the opera’s impact at this crucial point.

It had all started confusingly in Act 1: too much endless ‘snow’ and drab, two dimensional video above an unanimated overture.

Initially Senta put in an intriguing, all too brief, silent mime appearance but it wasn’t enough to set boredom at bay for the first ten minutes.

Niagrously underwhelming: ‘the wind that blows at you when you open the score’ simply wasn’t there.

Act 3 fared better, because it is much shorter.

The choral work, male and female, finally came together, in the singing contest with the Dutchman’s ghostly crew – who it seemed were played in on an off-stage recording

This was more HMS Pinafore than Wagner: Senta, the lass that loved a sailor.

But the final trio, ‘Segel auf! Anker los!’ was the pleasure of the evening: impassioned, tortured, urgent and sung with real bite.

Yet Senta’s Liebestod (the love death in which the surrender of life itself is the consummating act of love) in which she cuts her own throat was a step too far.

That is Cio-Cio-San territory.

Dutchman is Tosca territory.

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Of the many recordings of The Flying Dutchman on CD I recommend that conducted by Sinopoli in Berlin for Deutsche Grammophon, with Bernd Weikl, Cheryl Studer and Placido Domingo.

My set has no date, but I’d say the 1990s.

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George Fleeton writes independently on arts and culture in Ireland. He teaches Opera and Cinema in Higher Education.

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His next Afternoon Recital of Sacred Music takes place on Palm Sunday, March 24, in St Patrick’s Church Downpatrick, with Debra Stuart mezzo, Catherine Harper soprano and Michael McCracken organ

Tickets from Mary Cullen on 028 4461 2084.