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Der Fliegende Holländer 

by on 25 October 2021

Wagner Without the Va-Va-Vroom

Der Fliegende Holländer 

by Richard Wagner

Rose Opera at the Normansfield Theatre, Teddington until 24th October

Review by Suzanne Frost

Wagner by a fringe opera company?  Ambitious would be the first word to come to mind.  Wagner is known for a lot of “wumms”, as we would say in Germany, which might be broadly translated into va-va-vroom.  It has to be loud.  Rich.  Epic.  As much as he was a romantic – and there is inevitably a moment in every Wagner opera of such sweeping aching beauty it could make you cry – it won’t be a proper Wagnerian experience without those moments of such intense dramatic sound, it takes over your whole body and vibrates in your belly and just feels … epic. 

So you wonder, once you enter the tiny bijoux Normansfield Theatre in Teddington, how?  How they are going to produce The Flying Dutchman, a work that apart from a whole lot of va-va-vroom also demands a lot of lights, mood and theatricality.  Wagner, who, if he had had the means back then, would have probably worked in movies rather than the theatre, famously dreamed up the most outrageous special effects in his stage directions that directors now have to find feasible solutions for.  Shakespeare’s famous “exit pursuit by bear” has nothing on Wagner, who basically envisioned spectacles of such magnitude even the likes of Steven Spielberg or Roland Emmerich would need a lot of CGI for. 

So here we are, all a bit apprehensive I suppose of the task ahead, the very first Holländer motive in one of the most epic overtures of all time.  There’s a nice roaring and swishing storm blowing through the strings section but the whole thing could do with a bit more speed, a bit more power, more Sturm und Drang.  Equally, I am missing a bit more joyous celebration in the more folkloristic Steuermann motive.  One of my favourite directions in Wagner’s libretti is “mit wachsender Wärme” – growing more and more in warmth, until the music reaches a kind of celebratory euphoria.  All in, this overture, one of the most perfect musical storms ever written, feels a little flat. 

The curtain lifts to reveal the tiniest little shoebox stage, the incoming ship only hinted at by a steering wheel and some rope – but this will do fine.  I have seen productions on the biggest opera stages with not much more set then a few bits of nautical string.  For all Wagner’s love of grand special effects, the Holländer doesn’t need much.  All the atmosphere, the nautical themes and the closeness to the elements is all in the music.  Sure you would love a bit of a smoke machine or a light cue, as Philip Hayes’ Steersman falls asleep singing his sweet song, and the supernatural forces of the ghost ship begin to stir.  There is precious little ghostly atmosphere on the stage, but there is tension in the libretto, in the way Wagner introduces the doomed antihero, juxtaposed with the sweet innocence of the steersman.  Ian Helm as the Dutchman looks the part, handsome and tortured, pale with a ginger beard he reminds me of a van Gogh in the later stages of his madness, and although I could have done with a bit more spooky guyliner, there is no doubt about his stage presence.  Normally there is a bit of competition between the Hollander and Eric, Senta’s other love interest, but as a punter in the bar states in the first interval, “Really there is no competition here, he is a handsome devil”.

The Holländer is such an interesting gothic ghost story hero, because while Senta’s lusting for him suggests the same mysterious charm and seductive power as Dracula, a literary contemporary, has over his victims, the Holländer is filled with such self-loathing and despair, it does indeed warrant Senta’s sigh of deepest empathy “Der arme Mann!”.

Eric, the jealous suitor, is a tricky character at the best of times, so needy, whiney and selfish, it is difficult to find any sympathy for him – and it’s not like Senta is giving him any mixed signals at all.  (Eric is the kind of guy who hasn’t learned yet that no means no.)  However, he is performed here by Andy Evans with such static colourless stiffness he becomes even more lacklustre.  I honestly thought that tenors motionlessly reciting arias from the proscenium has been banned since the ‘80s. 

The ladies of the chorus are showing a lot more acting enthusiasm, gossiping and giggling away as they spin the wheel and secretly pass around a flask of something undoubtedly stronger than their tea.  The choir work throughout is strong, and even if it looks a lot like dad dancing, I so appreciate the men giving it a go for the Steuermann Lied.  This is the first bit of movement direction in a very static production, and yes of course the tiny stage becomes very crowded very quickly.  And yet there are so many more dynamic ways you could use the depth of the space rather than cramming everyone towards the ramp of the stage all the time, staring vaguely into the distance.  I wish everyone was encouraged to interact with each other, rather than playing at the audience.  It would make for more active engaging storytelling.

Out of nowhere the ghost choir appears, I genuinely did not see them entering at all, and for the first time in this whole production I am actually nicely spooked.  They are just five guys, pale faced and half hidden in dark hoods, but they are bringing the drama.  The seaman cry, the wind howls, the ghosts screech, the horns blow, the strings quiver and here finally in the last moments I can feel it – a rich Wagnerian va-va-vroom.  Now this is epic! 

Suzanne Frost, October 2021

Photography by Charles Dix

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