A THRILL FOR THE SENSES
THE FLYING DUTCHMAN
By Richard Wagner
Conductor: Wyn Davies
Director: Matthew Lutton
at St James Theatre, Wellington
From 14 Sep 2013 to 21 Sep 2013
Reviewed by Michael Gilchrist, 15 Sep 2013
Genuinely daring, fearlessly contemporary, utterly convincing. These are the descriptors that come to mind after this marvellous evening from NZ Opera. This production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman – staged in the bicentenary of the composer's birth – is in fact the first of a series of co-productions with Opera Queensland.
General Director of NZ Opera, Aidan Lang, cites a strong artistic bond between the two companies, as well as practical imperatives, as reasons behind the collaboration. That rings true. Production designer Zoe Atkinson and Director Matthew Lutton – both from Australia – combine with New Zealander Andrew Mackenzie as Assistant Director and Lighting Designer Jon Buswell from England, to make a formidable team. Indeed, it's appropriate to mention these names first of all because the production design, and the integration of design and direction in this show, are quite outstanding.
From the moment the curtain rises on the light-leaking, dreamy, geometric bunkhouse of the crew's quarters, pierced by ladders of shadow and u-boat like manholes, we feel joined to Wagner's journey of psychological discovery; this pioneering nineteenth century voyage into the ‘unheimlich', or uncanny.
The key to this journey is the double tendency which Freud highlights in that German term. It names not just the upsurge of unconscious drives into the calm surface of our lives but the falling down of the familiar and homely into the outgoing rip of the unconscious. The outrageous and unspeakable suddenly appears mundane and explicit; the humble and ordinary becomes strange and threatening.
Grasping this twofold principle gives the design and the acting – particularly the ensemble acting – an extraordinary assurance. Perhaps it is Atkinson's background in European puppet theatre, where the uncanny finds many of its paradigms, that gives her such a sense of the different dimensions in which this dynamic may be expressed, from the symbolic to the textural to the scalar.
There are many coups de theatre, which I won't spoil here, and the technical ambition of the production is also notable. But the great thing is that this approach makes the unfolding of Wagner's story seem at once historically revealing and completely contemporary – contemporary for us who live in a time where everything is explicit and, simultaneously, the cult of the vampire and the willing female sacrifice flourishes.
In this environment, too, the performers seem to shed any trace they might bear of stiffness or uncertainty. There is a collective, bodily immediacy in the male chorus in the first act, an apparently effortless cohesion, expressed both in sound and movement. Likewise, in the second act the female chorus act as if with one mind and yet with an uninhibited sense of individuality. This makes for stunning, seamless drama. Altogether this is a big powerful chorus producing a superb sound whose acting would grace any non-musical stage, all of which no doubt also reflects the standard of their direction.
The performances in the lead roles entirely justify the expectations we have of this considerable assembly of talent and experience. Foremost in this regard, perhaps, is Jason Howard as the Dutchman. He displayed a complete understanding of the role, a faultless baritone and plenty of the brooding sex appeal necessary in this role.
Likewise Orla Boylan as Senta gives a splendidly embodied performance with thrilling vocal power. Paul Whelan is a strong and secure Daland and I like the way his restraint shows up some strange ambiguities in this paternal role. Peter Auty's performance as Erik is warmly received and this reflects a thoroughly convincing characterisation of Senta's jilted – and bewildered – suitor.
Shaun Dixon relishes his role as the Steersman. He has a tenor voice of rare quality and beautiful tone with acting talent to spare. His portrayal of a bawdy leader of sailors is exceptional. Wendy Doyle as Mary fully maintains the high standard set by her peers.
Leading the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in their first performance since 2002, the vastly experienced Welsh maestro Wyn Davies draws beautiful tone and dynamics from the orchestra and the singers. Overall – for me, however, on opening night – the musical direction was too ponderous. There were too many caesura, too many pregnant pauses, too much deliberation in the tempi for this Dutchman to realise its full potential and really fly.
Too often, contrasts in mood and tone were made at the expense of the onward movement of the drama and the fluidity of the connection between those two psychological dynamics I've mentioned. It felt as if the audience were being cued for these contrasts in an entirely unnecessary manner. This tendency diminished steadily as the opera progressed. By the third act my frustration had almost completely subsided, but I feel sure there is room for improvement in this respect.
This said, however, the rapturous reception accorded this production by the audience on opening night seems to me entirely justified. This is leading edge creative endeavour in an extraordinarily demanding and, therefore, uniquely rewarding medium. It's a thrill for the senses no one should miss.
The confidence of this production in all its aspects is particularly exciting. That confidence not only makes this Flying Dutchman a must see for anyone who enjoys compelling drama of any kind; it makes us feel that there is no limit to the fresh perspectives that this company can open for us in the future.
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Sharu Delilkan (TheatreScenes - the Auckland Theatre Blog);
William Dart (New Zealand Herald);