The Flying Dutchman
July 2013 • The Coade Theatre, Bryanston, Dorset
An opera in three acts by Richard Wagner • Libretto: Richard Wagner • Sung in German with English subtitles
Doomed to sail the seas for all eternity, the Dutchman can only come ashore for one day every seven years, to try to find a wife who will be faithful unto death. Should that woman fail to keep her vow, she too would suffer eternal damnation. The Norwegian captain Daland, is forced to take shelter from a storm. His steersman falls asleep on watch, and the Dutchman’s ghostly ship moors alongside. Daland welcomes the mysterious stranger who offers gold in return for shelter. Discovering Daland has a daughter, Senta, the Dutchman immediately seeks her hand in marriage. In turn, she is mesmerised by the fable of the Flying Dutchman and ignores all attempts by her former boyfriend Erik, to win her back.
He is sent away in despair as Daland enters with the Dutchman. He and Senta become infatuated and festivities are hastily arranged to celebrate their engagement. The Dutchman’s crew come eerily to life and the Norwegian townsfolk flee in terror. Arriving for her marriage, Erik tries to convince Senta to change her mind. Believing that Senta still loves Erik, the Dutchman prepares his crew to leave, but since she yet to declare her vows to God, he releases her from her fate. Revealing his true identity, the Dutchman sails off, but, in a final act of ultimate sacrifice, Senta kills herself, swearing faithfulness until death. Finally the curse is broken and for the Dutchman, the moment of redemption has come.
Cast & Creative Team
|Steersman, (tenor) Pilot of Daland’s vessel||Tyler Clarke|
|Daland, (tenor) Pilot of Daland’s vessel||Richard Wiegold|
|The Dutchman, (bass/baritone)||Mark S Doss|
|Senta, (soprano) Daland’s daughter||Lee Bisset|
|Erik, (tenor) her former boyfriend||John Hudson|
|Mary, (mezzo-soprano) Senta’s friend||Clare Shearer|
|The crew of the Norwegian vessel; the Dutchman’s crew; women friends of Senta|
|Costume Realisation||Rebecca Hopkins|
|Lighting Designer||Bas Berensen|
|Chorus Director||Nicolas Mansfield|
|Assistant Chorus Master||Kelvin Lim|
|Orchestra Leader||Robert Gibbs|
While Jonathan Miller may have been the big-name directorial draw at Dorset Opera this year, Paul Carr’s new production of Der fliegende Holländer was far from overshadowed. So compelling was the staging and, in particular, Carr’s use of the chorus, that the Festival’s obvious budget limitations proved no barrier in bringing Wagner’s score to life. It was an object lesson in the dramatic effects that can be achieved with some basic equipment, enthusiastic teamwork and imagination. Take, for example, the Sailors’ Chorus, in which the stage was brilliantly brought to life by the motion of bodies alone, conjuring the heave and swell of the sea; or our first glimpse of the Dutchman, who emerged gradually from the darkness through a cloud of blood-red smoke, cutting a suitably ghostly figure.
American baritone Mark S Doss gave an intense and committed account as the Dutchman, his rich and commanding tone perfectly suited to this role. Capturing just the right mix of determination and desperation, this was a finely drawn portrait of Wagner’s antihero. Doss was well matched vocally and dramatically by Lee Bisset’s naïve yet knowing Senta, as well as by Richard Wiegold’s accomplished Daland. Only John Hudson as Erik disap- pointed, sounding strained at the top of his register, with some dodgy tuning to boot. There was consequently no contest between Erik and the Dutchman when it came to the romance stakes, so Senta’s rejection of him rang completely true.
Supporting all this from the pit was Dorset Opera’s music director, Jeremy Carnall, leading a relatively small orchestra for such a big score, but managing to squeeze out every last ounce of sound to ensure the big tuttis offered sufficient depth and richness. His pacing and grasp of the score’s dramatic architecture were superb, and the energy rarely flagged – despite the fact that many of the orchestra and chorus had performed Traviata only a few hours before.
Dutchman Causes a Stir in Rural Dorset
The organisers of summer opera festivals seem to choose the most sumptous backdrops for their activities, and the parkland of Bryanston School in Dorset is surely second to none. It is here that Dorset Opera organises a two week intensive summer school for singers and stage technicians culminating in opera performances which feature professional singers and musicians. The result is a large enthusiastic chorus trained to a professional standard which give the operas an extra uplift.
Dorset Opera has now reached middle age, having started in 1974 with The Bartered Bride, but THE organisation shows no signs of declining energy. After performing a great deal of Verdi over the years, they were well placed to celebrate his bicentenary with a new production of La Traviata by Jonathan Miller. This is the first time that they have tackled Verdi’s twin, Wagner, however, so why the the long wait? I suppose the problem is that many of his (later) operas are long and therefore not ideal fare for balmy summer evenings, as this was; also they do not have much of a role for a chorus, if any. But before Wagner became a revolutionary (in both music and politics), he wrote operas in the traditional manner with arias, choruses etc – sounding rather like Verdi, in fact – and if you like passion and high drama, Der Fliegende Holländer is a good choice.
There is some excellent orchestral music in this opera, not least the tense, atmospheric overture. One of the advantages of the Coade Theatre is that the orchestra is not hidden away, but in full view of the audience, and they were able to see the energetic and inspiring Jeremy Carnall (from St Gallen Opera) squeeze every nuance out of the score urging his orchestra on to greater heights. He was well supported by his musicians who had clearly been subjected to the same type of intensive regime as the members of the chorus. The set left a lot to the imagination – not a piece of rigging or a sail in sight, nor even a cliff for Senta to jump from! – but the choruses played a crucial role in creating both a sense of place and atmosphere, as for instance when the men’s chorus formed themselves into a ship’s prow. Though we never so much as glimpsed the Dutchman’s ghost ship, the chorus’s reactions to it made it seem all the more fearful. After the very masculine atmosphere of life aboard ship in stormy and calm weather the change to the world of women – a sort of textile factory presided over by the matronly Clare Shearer – could not have been greater with the delightful spinning wheel song representing order in contrast to the unbridled natural forces of the first act.
Of the seafarers a bearded Richard Wiegold as Daland looked every bit a sea captain with a commanding voice and an eye for a good business deal even if it could be to the detriment to his kith and kin. His acting, though, was a trifle wooden, but captains are like that in real life, aren’t they? I rather warmed to Tyler Clarke as the steersman, who is a bit of a joker and always urging his colleagues on to have a good time. A very fine tenor, his charming aria in Act 1 in which he dreams of his girl-friend back on land came as welcome relief after the excitement of the preceding storm.
Lee Bisset who has been singing various roles in the three Ring Cycles at Longborough this summer was the most Wagnerian of all the singers in this production. She brought more than a touch of Brünnhilde to the role of Senta, the dreamer who has been fascinated since childhood by the legend of the wandering Dutchman cursed by the devil. She recounts the story with great sympathy and eloquence to her fellow seamstresses pronouncing herself ready to ready to redeem him. It is at this point that the Brünnhilde aspect of her character is revealed.
A complication presents itself then when her admirer/lover Erik appears with a bunch of flowers. John Hudson looked the part of this stolid-looking huntsman who is loyal and true . The trouble is he is not the type to sweep a girl off her feet …… until he started to sing, when Hudson’s glorious tenor voice brought a dose of Italian passion to the proceedings.
The distinguished American bass-baritone Mark S Doss played the Dutchman and right from the beginning established himself as someone apart from the rest of humanity …. a man of mystery forced to wander the seas because of the devil’s curse and whose attempts to end his life all end in failure. Despite Daland’s offer of hospitality – and the hand of his daughter – he remains suspicious; fate has dealt him so many blows in the past. Doss possesses a great voice and stage presence and his encounters with Lee Bisset (who also possesses these attributes in abundance) made for an enthralling operatic experience. I hope we hear more of him over here …. and Ms Bisset, too.
It is impossible to find a bad word to say about Paul Carr’s production: a stellar cast of singers, well choreographed choruses who act naturally and sing with fervour at times, highly committed musicians and a conductor who kept up the excitement and tension right to the end. One expects performance of this stature in major opera houses of the world – not in rural Dorset – so I confidently predict full houses again for next year’s Festival when they present Fidelio and Aïda.
After 38 years, Dorset Opera has finally succumbed to Richard Wagner, in celebration of the composer’s bicentenary, and mounted two performances of his most accessible work The Flying Dutchman at the Coade Hall at Bryanston School.
The other production also marked a bicentenary, of Guiseppi Verdi, with his La traviata directed by Jonathan Miller.
The story of The Flying Dutchman is one of those seafaring tales of curses and ghost ships that have informed music, literature and film since time immemorial (perhaps most recently the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise!).
Senta, the daughter of a Norwegian sea captain, is obsessed with the story of a man destined to live forever on a ship manned by a ghostly crew after he cursed the Almighty when his ship foundered off a remote cape. His only “salvation” will be the love of a faithful woman, and she wants to be that woman.
When her father’s ship anchors alongside another vessel in a storm, his sailors don’t notice that their new companion has no visible crew. It is the Dutchman.
The magnificent African American bass baritone Mark S Doss made his Dorset debut in the title role, exuding both the charisma and the weary torment of the role, and he was powerfully coupled with Lee Bisset’s magnetic Senta, a woman whose determination matches her obsessive love.
John Hudson returned to Bryanston as Erik, Senta’s faithful huntsman and Richard Weigold sang captain Daland with great skill, though director Paul Carr’s decision to have him as a pompous and vaguely comic figure did not fit well with the story.
Tyler Clarke’s clear and chipper Steersman and Clare Shearer’s bustling housekeeper headed the wonderful Dorset Opera men’s and women’s choruses, singing their hearts out in this challenging score, for which they had to learn German as well as the music in three short weeks of workshops.
Footnote. It’s a pity for Dorset Opera that its 2013 season clashed with the Proms Barenboim Ring Cycle, which kept the London critics in the overheated circle of the Royal Albert Hall for the week.
Rural opera festivals can be serious rivals for the big London houses
Smaller stages at Longborough and Dorset show what can be done with limited resources, bags of enthusiasm – and one Jonathan Miller
If I’ve learnt one thing over the past year, it’s that the big London houses have serious rivals in the strangest of places. I’ve been wowed by great productions and fabulous singers – especially sopranos – in Wexford, Hamburg, little Longborough and most recently, of all places, Bryanston School in Dorset. And I know I’ve hardly scratched the surface.
Wexford in southern Ireland embraces opera for just two weeks each autumn, but its mission – to reclaim forgotten works – produced the highlight of my operatic year in Jessica Muirhead’s Vreli in Delius’s unjustly neglected A Village Romeo and Juliet. A thrilling soprano talent, I noted.
Hamburg is not seen as the operatic hub of Germany, but the excellent Simone Young has this summer staged a festival of all 10 of Wagner’s major works over a three-week Wagner-Wahn period of madness. I saw Das Rheingold, with the Rhinemaidens frolicking on a four-poster (the ‘bed’ of the Rhine) and lots of psychology, and wished I could have stayed for the rest.
I did see a complete Ring though – the unlikeliest of all, in a field in Gloucestershire, where Martin Graham’s 500-seater miracle showed that small can be beautiful, even for Wagner. I’ve written about Longborough’s amazing Ring in the September issue of Gramophone, out on August 20. In its own way, it was as worthy an enterprise as Barenboim’s starry concert staging at the Proms. Anthony Negus is a true Wagnerian conductor and Rachel Nicholls a smashing young Brünnhilde, with bags of development ahead of her. Stylish Lee Bisset, meanwhile, took on three, deliciously differentiated, roles – Freia (unforgiving of the gods who’d betrayed her and left her at the mercy of the giants Fafner and Fasolt), Sieglinde and Gutrune.
And she wasn’t finished. In no time at all she was in Dorset for her fourth major Wagnerian role of the summer – a dreamy Senta in a riveting Der Fliegende Holländer by Paul Carr. This was my first taste of Dorset Opera, whose huge 80-strong chorus is made up of amateurs, but you wouldn’t know it from the quality of their performance. The verve and vigour with which they undertake their task is remarkable. The stars of this Dutchman may have been Bisset and a splendid Mark Doss in the title role – were we really in a countryside school rather than the major opera house where these two clearly belong? – but the focused enthusiasm of Nicolas Mansfield’s chorus is what makes Dorset Opera special.
Two performances of the Dutchman were accompanied by three Traviatas, the principals double-cast, in a new production commissioned from one Dr Jonathan Miller, who at 79 has lost none of his wit or savoir faire, despite alienating the big houses who will no longer work with him. It’s their loss, by the way. English National Opera’s three-opera retrospective last season reminded us just how good a director he is – who could ever forget his Mikado (or indeed his famous ENO ‘Mafia’ Rigoletto, sadly no longer in the rep)?
Miller focuses on what’s happening inside his characters’ heads. When he talks to you his hands are quietly but continually illustrating what he’s saying. He has no time for modern directorial fads, or indeed directors (he’s not interested in other interpretations and has refused to go to an opera for 10 years), and likes to leave a piece like Traviata in the era Verdi wrote it. For Miller, less is more. He mocks the likes of Angela Gheorghiu (who can’t stand him) dancing round the stage when her Violetta is about to die of consumption and confines both his Violettas here to their deathbeds for the entirety of the last act.
Dorset’s second-cast Violetta was Wexford’s Vreli! But with Verdi’s most celebrated heroine Muirhead’s competing with every star soprano who’s ever lived. She eagerly embraces Miller’s philosophy – ‘I was so excited to work with him,’ she told me. ‘He’s the coolest of cool!’ Her first Violetta, and the characterisation is impressive already.
The other Violetta was Polish-born Anna Jeruc-Kopec, who’d had more time with the orchestra. Another splendid singer on the festival circuit, she didn’t much like being confined to her bed. Perhaps she’ll do a Gheorghiu when she reprises the role in studio performances… at this year’s Wexford festival! Yes, it’s a small world on the festival circuit.
It was quite a coup for Dorset to secure Miller, who strips the sets to the bare essentials – less on occasion. It was a joy to see him still ruffling feathers on the operatic stage. The oldies can certainly show how’s it’s done!
Wexford, Longborough and Dorset are among younger festivals that consistently punch above their weight and show what can be done with limited resources, bags of enthusiasm…and singers quite good enough, given half a chance, to break into the top rank.