In a picturesque corner of the Cotswolds there nestles a 500-seat theatre whose modest stage rests atop a generous orchestra pit. Inadequate wing space and cramped backstage facilities limit creation but not ambition; for this is Longborough Festival Opera, and they do Wagner. The big stuff. Last year the family-run outfit revived its Tristan und Isolde; next year they embark on a brand-new Ring cycle – their second.
This year The Flying Dutchman has flown into Longborough and it's piloted as always here by the expert baton of Anthony Negus, an acknowledged master of this repertoire. The production (and these have not always matched the musical excellence at this venue) is by Thomas Guthrie, an experienced hand who appreciates the limitations of the venue and works within them. If the fruit of his labours lacks a rich flavour he's only partly to blame.
Guthrie's Der Fliegende Holländer is flat in the literal sense, as there are no raised levels and little to beak the visual monotony of a wood-floor stage and a cloudburst cyclorama. Chorus members bring on miniature buildings from time to time, a few crates come and go, and that's it. Were it not for some purposeful strutting by the male principals and a lively bout of Ho-He-Je-Ha stomping by the men's chorus I'd be calling it semi-staged. That is not necessarily a bad thing as it means nothing gets in the way of the drama.
Der Fliegende Holländer anticipates The Pirates of the Caribbean as a supernatural tale of life on the ocean wave – or, rather, a living death for the accursed Lowlander who is doomed to remain at sea for seven years at a time and can only be freed by the love of a good woman. The usual thing.
The eponymous Dutchman is Simon Thorpe, who looks the part and then some. Bearded, burly and mysterious, the Tasmanian bass-baritone materialises from his (unseen) phantom vessel like Orson Welles from shadows and delivers an authoritative account of his role. On opening night his first act was touched by wayward intonation; but this had settled down by the opera's climactic set piece, a moment he delivered with riveting power.
Bass Richard Wiegold was in commanding voice as the sea captain Daland, and tenor Jonathan Stoughton made light of a debilitating throat infection to characterise the lovelorn Erik with ardour and impressive vocal urgency. The fine mezzo Carolyn Dobbin made more of her small role as Mary than is often the case.
But there are three star turns in this production and two of them are collectives: the luminous orchestra and Thomas Payne's outstandingly versatile chorus. The third, a soprano, was making her Wagnerian stage debut. As Senta, the opera's biggest and most emotionally demanding role, Kirstin Sharpin combined the power and control of a true dramatic soprano with vocal grace and beauty under pressure. She sang tirelessly and magnificently, and I'd sail the seven seas to hear her again.