Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Sometimes you read something which is so transporting that you wish you had been - to London, yesterday.

Edward Seckerson's five star review of the Royal Opera House Der fliegende Hollander is five stars in itself. Worthy of no further reduction or vacuous hyperbole by me, here it is, lock stock and metaphor:

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 of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman and that he’d started exactly as he meant to go on. 

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. 

Albery doesn’t attempt to illustrate the tempest-tossed opening of the opera – Wagner does that supremely well in his overture – but he and his designer Michael Levine do suggest an awesome scale right from the start with the front cloth imagined as a giant sail caught in cross winds and streaked with salty spray. Suddenly the entire stage is a gigantic metal hull that dwarfs even its crew and when the mysterious Dutchman’s ship does finally arrive the all-enveloping shadow creeps across the stage like a total eclipse. 

Enter now the flying Terfel toting a rope like it’s his lifeline or his cross to bear for all eternity. His still, dark, bulky, threatening presence is already not quite of this world and as he quietly utters the words “Die Frist ist um” (“The time is up”) you sense the weariness of his eternal torment. Terfel’s German has always been exemplary but here he uses words like a fist of defiance against “eternal annihilation”, spitting out consonants with impunity and making phrases like “barbarous son of the sea” as ugly and they are vivid. He is as good here as I’ve heard him in a long time, capitalising now on his well-marinated vocal timbre, weathered and craggy but still capable of great tenderness in those ascents into honeyed head voice. 

The line “Tell me, blessed angel, to whom I owe the terms of my salvation” has the ache of hopeless longing about it and it’s at this moment that Albery first brings in Senta cradling a model of the Dutchman’s ship close to her heart. Then, as her workplace, the factory sewing room, descends from above like some alien starship it seems almost to underline the sense of her remoteness from reality. 

Anja Kampe has a very special intensity on stage. The vaulting vocal line of her ballad’s verses spoke excitingly of her fearlessness while the recurring plaint of the chorus had one truly believing in “the angel of salvation”, its final reprise like a hushed benediction. Of course, the danger of a talent as unstinting as this is always going to be wear and tear. Kampe doesn’t want to sing too many Sentas if she hopes to hang on to the lyricism in her voice. It’s a push for most, this role, but definitely for her. Still, what inner-light she radiated: nowhere more so than in the central duet where Albery truly caught the other-worldliness of Senta and her elusive Dutchman - just two chairs a single hanging lamp isolating them in time and space. 

Indeed in this contemporary take on the old fable the Dutchman only ever really exists in Senta’s imagination. I’m not sure what Wagner would have made of Albery’s denoument but this Senta does not hurl herself into the briny deep of eternity but rather is left to languish on dry land clutching on to her very own phantom vessel - and her dreams.

Oh that we may be so lucky with the new Adelaide production later this year, where hopefully we move from Opera Australia's cluttered self conscious Kosky production. This is where 'you never never know if you never never go' takes on meaning. Every now and then there's a jackpot. One a year is a good enough average I think, but sometimes you have to buy a lot of tickets to get a winner. Last year's Billy Budd, as anyone with ears has already heard, was just that.

Reviewers and critics seem a declining breed. Consider the loss of depth in the print media, an increasing tendency to laud for marketing appeal not talent, and the slippery slope, in North America at least, to praise to the extreme anything that is in front of you because, well, because it is in front of you and, therefore, if it is worthy then I am worthy; if it moves it gets a standing ovation, and sometimes if it doesn't.

Talk of a decline in standards of the classical music magazine Gramophone has been around for a while. The current issue leaves little doubt. The cover is the old beat up story of diva vs diva, two glamour girls (Netrebko and Gheorghiu) facing off on the cover under the heading "Who's Today's Prima Donna". Singular. Either or. This is followed by "Leading critics take sides in Italian Opera's lastest Diva rivalry". This is the stuff of No Idea and Woman's Weakly. I snatched one up and read it on the footpath ouside the newsagent.

The journalism was up to the cover. Anne Midget, the music critic for the Washington Post (one of the better things about Gramophone was that it was British, or shall we say, rather British), declaims pompously that she is not to be told Netrebko can't trill, or is over-hyped (no room for truth here), because she (Midget) is a "critic, after all", who has an inner voice which listens carefully to things like expression and phrasing, but regardless of what the inner voice hears, it is the sound of the voice with its primal, tactile quality to which she is, in fact, addicted. Right then. Sing how you like, what you like Ms Netrebko, just sing sing sing. Perhaps a name change to Antonia Netrebko would suit Ms Midget. Now I have only heard Netrebko once, Donna Anna, Covent Garden. She is a big stage presence, a beautiful voice, but she isn't an especially good Mozart singer, she has no trill, and anyway, my eyes were fixed on Mr Schrott, (heart check-up before opening that link please).

John Allison (Sunday Telegraph and Opera Magazine) goes into bat for Ms Gheorghiu. I don't like Ms Gheorghiu. She dissed our Joan. That's it. Mr. Allison is more considered than Ms Midget, but nonetheless seems to pin his hat on her 1994 London Traviata, and even then falls back on quoting the tearful George Solti. I wonder if he was there. By all accounts Gheorghiu's new Butterfly, EMI, Pappano, is very good. You-tube have an EMI promo of the recording session and she sounds gorgeous. You'll have to search that yourselves. No Gheorghiu face on this page , sorry.

However, there is some very good, very fantastic (as our friend Kenji was want to say) news about Gramophone. Their archives have now gone on-line. It is free, up to but excluding the current issue. The technology is fascinating:

"Each page is viewable as a digital image of the original alongside a plain text ‘extraction’ of the words employing OCR {Optical Character Recognition} that can be searched but also pasted out of the viewing box (though see our copyright policy)."

"The Gramophone Archive is a searchable database containing every issue of Gramophone from April 1923 to the latest issue. Despite the complexities of producing a magazine during wartime, Gramophone has never missed an issue and in 1995 added an extra, 13th, issue each year to coincide with the annual Gramophone Awards."

There is where you will find some excellent reading, in the past.

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