The first night of ENO’s new staging of The Flying Dutchman starts thrillingly. Music director Edward Gardner’s downbeat unleashes a mighty and violent sound from the orchestra, and there’s nothing to distract from the music as the curtain is down. But after a few short minutes the curtain rises on a foreboding moonlit scene, waves crash against an invisible shore, and we see a terrified young girl in bed seeking solace from her aloof father. It’s the young Senta and her old salty sea-dog of a father Daland. If he’d given her a hug, a cup of cocoa and a copy of Goldilocks and the Three Bears the evening would no doubt have been a lot shorter, and we’d have probably been in the bar after the overture, but he doesn’t. He pushes her away and gives her a hefty tome with a picture of the Flying Dutchman on it – obviously parenting skills aren’t part of his makeup, so it’s no surprise that when we see the grown up Senta later, she’s still clutching the by now slightly dog-eared tome to her ample breast and is, in all fairness, as mad as a box of frogs.
This staging is director Jonathan Kent’s first foray into Wagner and whilst he cranks up the obsessive side of the story, the redemptive elements are ignored – his vision is aided and abetted by the version of the score that ENO opt for which is minus the ‘redemptive’ motif at the end of the overture and opera. Altogether it makes for a more explosive evening of theatre but at times Kent over eggs the pudding. It’s an interesting conceit – in that the whole opera, and the Dutchman himself is imagined by Senta, but that’s not a particularly new idea and Orla Boylan has to act the role at such a fever pitch throughout it’s no surprise that at times intonation goes awry.
Paul Brown’s designs are contemporary-ish. Senta and the girls work in a factory stuffing models of the Dutchman’s ship into glass bottles, but as they all light up in their break, inside the factory; we’re evidently not in the UK. Erik is the factory security guard (Stuart Skelton is the spitting image of James Cordon here), and when all the sailors and their lasses let their hair down in the party scene, some are dressed as parrots, there’s a large inflatable palm tree and poor Senta is subjected to every kind of humiliation imaginable, including having a bowl or two of twiglets thrown over her and is almost gang-raped. She even does an Elektra-inspired dance, and of course there’s no redemption at the end – she commits hara-kiri with a broken wine bottle. You can’t blame her.
Musically things went swimmingly. Gardner shows that he has the makings of a great Wagnerian, and the orchestra responds with thrilling playing. The choral singing is grand. As mentioned above, Orla Boylan throws herself into the role of Senta with abandon – much is faultlessly voiced, and James Creswell is hugely promising as the Dutchman, even though at this stage his singing lacks a variety of colour. Clive Bayley provides sterling support as Daland and Stuart Skelton’s Erik steals the show, vocally that is. An ungrateful role, he gives it his all and is the best Erik I’ve ever heard, but he is an awkward presence on stage – physically he looks as though he’s on track to go the way of Johan Botha. I hope he doesn’t.