“You are certainly familiar,” said Heinrich Heine, perhaps optimistically, “With the legend of the Flying Dutchman. It is the story of the accursed ship … which since time immemorial has sailed hither and thither across the seas.” Heine’s tale, drawing on the ancient folk legend of the Wandering Jew doomed to roam in aimless despair in search of salvation, struck Wagner profoundly: it came to him “regularly, and with irresistible attraction.” It marked, he felt, a sea-change in his career, and the moment at which he moved from librettist to poet.
Jonathan Kent’s new production for the ENO is an effective evocation of a myth which exerts its ‘irresistible attraction’ still. It revels in the peculiarly haunting quality of tales of doomed souls aboard doomed ships: as the overture swells from the pit, with its repeated motif of something like a huntsman’s call, a high tide rises onstage, a low moon is obscured by cloud, and that ghostly ship appears. It weighs anchor alongside an altogether more prosaic vessel, that of the captain Daland, whose crew sings wistfully of girls left ashore. Learning of the Dutchman’s fate – that only the love of a woman faithful to death can free him from his torment – Daland makes a ghastly pact: he will offer the hand of his own daughter, Senta, in return for unimaginable wealth.
Kent has chosen a contemporary staging, as is immediately plain from the device of placing Senta as child centre-stage throughout the first act. In her Ikea bed and pink pyjamas, she provides an innocent counterpoint to the devilish bargains taking place. As first Daland and then the Dutchman come ashore , it becomes apparent that we are in something like a dull Scottish harbour town, whose inhabitants cast the wretched glamour of the Dutchman into still sharper relief. Senta, by now grown, is a factory girl in tabard and plimsolls; in a characteristically witty touch, she works on an assembly line making cheap, red-sailed ships in bottles. Much to the irritation of her fiancé Erik – whose unflattering security guard’s trousers are no match for the Dutchman’s greatcoat – she nurses a childish fascination for the legend, and spends her days dreamily singing his tale.
Orla Boylan as Senta is far from the winsome, lithe maiden of whom her father sung. She is a sturdy and rather prosaic character, so that her infatuation for the Dutchman has a quality of the absurd which is rather compelling: as she sings her ballad, to the jeering accompaniment of the factory girls, she is transformed, raising a tattered scrapbook to the light, and becoming for a moment the romantic character she yearns to be. Boylan is at her best where the melodies are sweetness and contemplation, but there are occasional halts as her voice breaks in the lower register: it is a likeable performance, but not a seductive one.
As The Dutchman, James Cresswell’s rich bass has a thick, rather dark quality at its most effective when blended in duet. And yet I found that I was not drawn to him as I would have wished: I felt as though I were trying to fall in love, on account of the greatcoat, and the lock of black hair, and all that wonderful despair, but I could never quite manage it. The fault lay chiefly in an overly still stage presence: it takes more than a great deal of looming against a window to make a doomed hero.
As Daland, Clive Bayley combines a voice of particular strength and sweetness with a witty and studied stage presence. His diction is remarkably crisp without ever appearing intrusive, and he is persuasive both as loving father and venal businessman.
In this production, the greatest pleasures lay away from the central characters – the most compelling male presence onstage is Stuart Skelton as Erik. Cumbersome, red-headed, determinedly unromantic, he invests both his voice and his body language with a despairing energy that draws ear and eye more certainly than even the Dutchman. And I found the most poignant and memorable aria to be the Steersman’s Song, which Robert Murray delivers with penetrating melancholy: it is a melody that seems both fresh and ancient, as though I must surely have heard it somewhere before, but couldn’t for the life of me remember when.
The chorus – whether the vulgar, cheerful factory girls, Daland’s homesick shipmates, or the ghostly crew of the Flying Dutchman – is uniformly superb. The orchestra is a responsive and able partner to those onstage, and the wind section is especially noteworthy: that haunting tantivy first heard in the overture, and reprised throughout with an eerie persistence, speaks plainly of Wagner’s sense of having been haunted himself by the Dutchman’s tale.
If this production does not quite deliver that promise of a myth ‘to penetrate the heart’, there are nonetheless moments of startling melancholy and yearning which are all the more affecting for coming when least expected.