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Der fliegende Holländer : Preview

by on 3 October 2021

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Der fliegende Holländer : Preview

Normansfield Theatre, Teddington from 22nd October

Preview by Thomas Forsythe with Tamara Ravenhill and Alan Bain

Opera critic Thomas Forsythe discusses Rose Opera’s forthcoming production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer  with the Artistic Director of Rose Opera Tamara Ravenhill  and the Designer, Alan Bain

TF:     May I say how much I enjoyed the Rose Opera Gala 2021 back in June.  No Wagner there though, so I was wondering, why did you choose Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) as your main opera for this autumn?  It is surely a challenge to produce for a smaller company and it doesn’t at first seem to be one of the crowd pleasers which are frequently produced by such companies?

TR:     Thank you.  When founded, Rose Opera aimed to explore unusual and challenging grand opera repertoire in an accessible and affordable way.  We would like to show that some pieces which by reputation are “difficult” can be presented by smaller groups in a compelling fashion, making these operas better known and loved by wider audiences.   With this opera we are fortunate in many ways – a powerful story from the lore of the sea and an exploration of love and redemption.  As an early Wagner (as is Wagner in general) it is vocally very challenging, yet lyrical and melodic.  Rose Opera is fortunate to have capable singers to sing this repertoire well, both principals and chorus.  This opera contains a very substantial part for the chorus (ships do need sailors!) so needs a capable chorus who like a challenge.   In many senses it is a crowd pleaser, but not one that is performed frequently; it was last seen at the Royal Opera in 2015.

TF:     What are some of the highlights of the work for you, musically speaking?

TR:     The first really amazing vocal moment is the Dutchman’s aria of imploration Die Frist is um, part prayer for redemption, part narrative.  But that fantastic duet between the Dutchman and Senta is pretty hard to beat. 

TF:     Wagner operas are known as tests for the audience of sitting still on hard seats while a hermit practices vocal exercises by the hour; won’t this be a challenge for attracting an audience to Teddington?

TR:     It is an early Wagner opera, and is one of the shortest (at just over two hours).  We will be presenting it in three acts with intervals, not as the subsequently revised single act version (the latter can challenge the audience).  However, Wagner likes to tell a story and the libretto is surprisingly compact and not overindulgent and of course the text is set to beautiful music, with plentiful use of chorus and ensembles. 

AB:     But, you can make Teddington sound like the North Pole, Tamara!  It is a beautiful place in West London next to such iconic locations as Hampton Court Palace and Richmond Park.    We hope that the production will be seen by London audiences as well as local followers.   Normansfield Theatre, a beautiful Victorian landmark in Teddington, is Rose Opera’s home. 

TF:     Dutchman is an opera known for its grand theatrical spectacle, ghost ships and the original stage directions mention Senta and the Dutchman flying upwards.  Doesn’t this make it a bit impracticable for a small scale realisation? 

AB:     The sea remains central to this story in our minds and yes we have a ship (but no flying).  We have tackled some of the costume challenges by relocating the action to a more familiar location!  This story has been explored in varied ways by opera companies with substantial budgets – some of which go in quite unexpected directions even as far as references to Germany’s past.  In our minds the story is a ghost story about a suffering soul, told through Victorian eyes and mindful of their sensibilities, the Dutchman forms a mystical connection with a young woman.   This is much more human and intriguing and mysterious…..  We’d like to focus on these human aspects and beautiful story telling rather than using vast budgets.  The key elements are a small and remote village depending on the sea for their livelihoods.  How quickly do they acknowledge a new danger, how they react and what ultimately happens …

TF:     And the orchestra? Are you using a reduced orchestration even if just to avoid hiring strange instruments that nobody has seen before?

TR:     It’s early Wagner and the orchestral demands are less extreme that for The Ring! As a result we pretty much have a complete orchestra (minus a harp!) but there are four French horns and four trombones, all under the baton of Benedict Collins Rice.  It is a small theatre, but you can see and enjoy the opera in an intimate setting.

TF:     The double choruses required must have provided a challenge.  I recall that Longborough used a recording for the chorus of Dutch sailors.  How has Rose opera approached this problem?

TR:     Although we are a small opera company, we are extremely fortunate to have an amazing in-house chorus master Alethea Tabor who is a busy choral and solo singer (outside of the day job!) and who has worked hard to recruit and then drill the chorus in text, language and music.  One benefit of more unusual repertoire is that singers have travelled from far and wide to join the rehearsals.  Rose Opera run a Young Artists’ Programme and after our auditions this year four excellent musicians joined in September and will be part of the chorus for Dutchman, but will also take roles in subsequent galas and in the Rose’s Opera In Recital series (look out for the inaugural recital on 17th November at the 1901 Arts Club near London Waterloo).

TF:     Wagner has a habit of marrying off his female characters without involving them much in the process; Eva ended up as a prize in a singing competition; Isolde was bound in a boat to marry her Uncle and now Dalland agrees to the Dutchman marrying Senta before they have met.  When considering playing the role of Senta, what do you, think about her lack of agency?

TR:     Senta definitely isn’t a weak character.  She isn’t going to become captain of the ship; she still lives in a rigid Victorian society.  However, she knows what she wants and where she’s going and in her own context she flouts convention.  As the daughter of a big shot (albeit a big fish but only in a small pond) she has the social position; yet she is in love with a man whom she has never met.   Her father does present the Dutchman as a husband as a fait accompli, yet he nevertheless turns out to be the man in her dreams.  The Dutchman approaches another “wife candidate” with a very transactional mind-set; he all too clearly has a back catalogue of exes who didn’t make the grade.  In contrast Senta of her own volition undertakes to save him.  In the third act Erik offers her a clear way out which she rejects absolutely, clearly in full knowledge of what she is doing.

TF:  Alan, we were speaking about Wagner’s final stage directions?  Perhaps you can remind us, in translation, what he asks.

AB:  “Senta throws herself into the sea; instantly the Dutchman’s ship sinks, quickly breaks up and disappears.   In the far distance, the sea surges up with an apparition of the ship.  The transfigured bodies of Senta and the Dutchman can be seen rising from the waters in an embrace.”

TF:     Wow!  How do you achieve that on stage?

AB:     His stage direction is almost cinematographic.  It is interesting to imagine how Wagner would have directed a film.   It would be very spectacular with music, story, passion and a vast special effects budget!   However, this is not Hollywood and we have to be realistic. 

TF:     Tamara, how then do you interpret these final cryptic stage directions for Senta?   What do you feel happens; is this an Earthly redemption she has found, has she taken her own life or is it ambiguous? 

TR:     Productions over the past fifty years show many endings — total doom, a pair of crack addicts lost in delirium, Senta dying of grief alone with the Dutchman departed or in sacrifice and redemption bordering on the theological.  We feel that the Dutchman and Senta are clearly reunited and while Senta will roam the village no more, the Dutchman is free in some sense.  We can leave the rest to the audience’s imagination.  But we would like them to leave with a feeling of hope rather than total despair.

TF:     If one isn’t a Wagner fan, or indeed knows much about the opera, why would you go and see it?

TR:     It is a gripping and compelling story which tells itself through wonderful lyrical music.  There is a sense and power of the human voices riding on an orchestra of forty, and telling a story of redemption.  Tongue somewhat in cheek — maybe it is an alternative to going to see a romantic movie with a bit of supernatural, as we are in October?

TF:     Something a little different then?

TR:     We believe it to be the first performance in Teddington of this opera and certainly the first in the Victorian splendour of Normansfield Theatre (and what better way to enjoy this fantastic building than seeing it in use during a live musical performance). 

TF:     I for one will be at Normansfield Theatre on Friday 22nd October to see Rose Opera’s Der fliegende Holländer  but there are other performances over that weekend.  Tamara and Alan, thank you.   

Thomas Forsythe, October 2021

Photography by Alan Bain and Charles Dix

From → Opera, Rose Opera

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