Review Round-up: Did Welshman Terfel’s Dutchman Fly?

Tim Albery’s new production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Höllander opened at the Royal Opera House on 23 February, with Welsh bass-baritone returning to the house for the first time since he dropped out of the Keith Warner Ring at short notice at the end of 2007.

All seemed to be forgiven, with the critics mostly finding his performance riveting and well-sung. As usual, though, the reviews were divided, ranging from three to five stars. Most also praised the Royal Opera debut of German soprano Anja Kempe in the role of Senta, with Ed Seckerson of The Independent describing her “special intensity on stage” but also concerned that she could push her voice if she sings the role too often.

Designs are by the Canadian Michael Levine and his simple approach provokes much comment. The production also marks the ROH debut of German conductor Marc Albrecht, who comes in for more praise than criticism.

One of Wagner’s earliest attempts at opera, Der fliegende Höllander tells the story of a ghostly seaman condemned to sail the seas for eternity unless he can find a woman preared to sacrifice herself and redeem him. Using the original Dresden version meant a two and half hour evening without interval and a particularly grim conclusion. The production runs through to 10 March.


– Simon Thomas on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “Albery, and designer Michael Levine, use the slenderest and most suggestive of means to paint a world of grim reality and phantasmal mistiness. The set impresses when stark cross-lighting hits buckled steel and a ship-like structure emerges from the semi-dark but is less effective in the full light… Terfel’s sepulchral Dutchman staggers on, blasted by a side light and weighed down with a huge rope like an albatross tying him to his curse… It is only with Terfel’s return to the stage that things lift and Kampe raises her game too. The meeting of Senta and Dutchman is riveting, beautifully sung by both and accompanied with playing of burnished beauty under Marc Albrecht’s baton.”

Neil Fisher in The Times (four stars) – “when Terfel’s Dutchman simply stumbles wearily on to the metal shell that passes for both sea and land, what we see is no glamorous spectre cursed to wander the seas but simple damaged goods, the counterpart to Kampe’s bedraggled seamstress… Surrprisingly, Terfel sometimes seems physically ill at ease, going for Bela Lugosi-style bulging eyes and lurching when everything around him suggests he is simply a man with guilt that he can’t shift. That shouldn’t detract from his stunning musical achievement, however… But perhaps the strongest argument in favour of this unsentimental night at the opera comes from the pit, where Marc Albrecht powers through the score in thrilling fashion.”

Edward Seckerson in The Independent (five stars) – “You knew from the palpable fizz of those open fifths in tremolando violins and the cut and thrust of the horns that conductor Marc Albrecht was very much at the helm… Add to that the flying Welshman, Bryn Terfel, weighing anchor in a performance of thrilling intensity more than matched on this occasion by a soprano, Anja Kampe, who simply knows no fear; throw in the Royal Opera Chorus on blistering form and a stage director, Tim Albery, for whom less is always more, and you have one of those rare evenings in the opera house that has you sitting so far forward in your seat that every muscle in your body is aching by close of play. “

Barry Millington in The Evening Standard (three stars) – “Terfel’s Flying Dutchman is not a barnstorming performance, rather an unconventionally subtle one… There are just two gripping moments in Tim Albery’s unremarkable production. One is the staging of Senta’s Ballad, for which the spinning girls (here at sewing machines) turn off the factory striplights to hear the story by eerie candlelight. The other is the appearance of the ghostly Dutch crew in spooky green light, through which Senta threads her way in search of her fantasy hero… Albery is fortunate to have the brilliant designer Michael Levine, for it is his imagination, enhanced by the lighting of David Finn, that provides most that is memorable… There’s some fine solo and choral singing and Marc Albrecht’s handling of the score is impressive but this is a far cry from the thrilling productions seen in Germany in recent decades.”

Andrew Clements in The Guardian (four stars) – “Tim Albery’s staging is built around Bryn Terfel’s haunted portrayal of the Dutchman, and the bass-baritone unquestionably delivers. His performance is mesmerising – hauntingly well-sung, and he dominates the stage even when doing nothing at all. Set alongside the equally world-class Senta (sung by Anja Kampe, in her Royal Opera debut), Terfel secures and intensifies the core of the drama, and its climax…Albery updates the action in an unselfconscious, non-conceptual way… That dramatic focus generally remains sharp. Only the opening is miscalculated, when a rippling front cloth through the overture to symbolise the storm that delays Daland’s ship proves far too distracting… Marc Albrecht’s conducting gained steadily in presence, without ever fusing everything into a single musical arc, though that might come in later performances. “