Monday, November 9, 2009


Today, November 9, is the 167th anniversary of the premier of Wagner's "Der Fliegende Hollander" (1842) and the curtain came down 2 days ago on the State Opera of South Australia's new production, and a quite nice one too. The curtain that is.

Just kidding. Any Wagner is good Wagner here (and this was more than just any Wagner) where we are starved of him, and scrimp and save and trawl the world in endless search, like Flying Dutchpeople, trapped in attachment seeking redemption. Why, at lunch before the opening, L was heard to declaim she hadn't heard a Ring Cycle since August. Forks dropped. And this the very continent where the last sighting of the cursed ship was, in 1880, by our (well, some of our) monarch's grandfather, the then Prince George of Wales, and sailing between Melbourne and Sydney no less.

"At 4 a.m. the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars, and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up on the port bow, where also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her, as did the quarterdeck midshipman, who was sent forward at once to the forecastle; but on arriving there was no vestige nor any sign whatever of any material ship was to be seen either near or right away to the horizon, the night being clear and the sea calm. Thirteen persons altogether saw her...At 10.45 a.m. the ordinary seaman who had this morning reported the Flying Dutchman fell from the foretopmast crosstrees on to the topgallant forecastle and was smashed to atoms."

Continuing a now established tradition of staging excellent Wagner, the South Australians had prepared a Flying Dutchman (production photos inside the link) for lean times, relying on minimalist staging and special lighting effects, sourcing costumes from Opera Australia, but holding onto the highest musical standards with their own wonderful orchestra and chorus, to be led by Geoffrey Braithwaite, supporting a fine line up of Wagnerians with local Chris Drummond directing his first opera.

Conductor: Nicholas Braithwaite
Director: Chris Drummond
Designs (Set, Lighting): Geoff Cobham
Chorusmaster: Timothy Sexton
Dutchman: John Wegner
Senta: Margaret Medlyn
Erik: Stuart Skelton
Daland: Daniel Sumegi
Mary: Katharine Tier
Steersman: Angus Wood

I had forgotten what a joy the Adelaide Festival Theatre is, with comfortable seating, spacious legroom, fantastic sightlines, big take-all-the-musicians-the-master-wanted pit, and a succesful, if slightly strange, acoustic enhanced by the Lares acoustic technology which doesn't alter the sound leaving the performance space but rather augments the reverb with microphones and speakers around the auditorium. The sound is clear yet full and warm, perhaps questionably louder than one would expect although directionality seemed less distinct , and also this time, as we were slightly off centre, K (he of the electronic ears) wondered if he could actually detect an artificiality. But, no doubt, the shrieks of the opening storm were a welcome reminder that we were in a good theatre with a good orchestra.

The set was a simple moderate incline with virtually no furniture, except a steel skeletal bow for Daland's ship, a rather sloppy ropey rigging affair for the Dutchman's boat, and a wooden stool for the odd bottom and for Senta to stand on once for a bit of a sing and nearly fall off. See what happens when girls can't say no. Light and dark, night and day, pain and release, entrapment and redemption, were all up to the lighting. Well they weren't really, they were up to the music, and just as well, because for all its special effects, lasers, lights, stars, shadows and twirly bits (the women wove twirly bits) it seemed to me all a bit of a muddle, and I suspect that was because the music was doing its job and the lighting wasn't really that well married to it. One was inspired, one was not. Dutchman is seen as Wagner's first work where he let the inspiration come through, where his consciousness is submissive to intuition, where, to use Schopenhauer's terminology (and he was yet to be exposed the Schopenhauer's philosophy) the phenomenal (material space and time) gave way to the noumenal (the true reality of timeless undifferentiated unity). Yes, rather hard to light, and especially rather hard to direct, as anyone who has tried doing just that with the increasingly philosophically complex Wagnerian output which commenced with Dutchman and ended with Parsifal. It's enough to make a director risk a Dutchman's curse.

I'm afraid I couldn't put my finger on a concept. It all seemed a matter on getting everyone on and off stage, move around a lot and mostly avoid getting too close to anyone else. I wondered when the Dutchman, just after his angry entry, breathed out onto his close held open palm if he was seeing how cold it was, or if he was breathing at all, or if maybe he had halitosis. I think they all had halitosis. The only time there was any real contact (save for our Erik, more later) was when Senta, after her penultimate declaration of 'fidelity for eternity' was run upon by the Wanderer and delivered a deep passionate and quite prolonged, fully frenched kiss. It was fairly carnal for what was to be the launch of some serious spiritual redemption, but nevermind.

It was, in the end, something which could easily be done in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall. And I'd like to know why it isn't. Mr Collette was there and I hope he's having the same thoughts. Big orchestra, conductors who know (Simone come and have a drink with Lyndon, and Mrs Danvers has gone), ample simple stage, lights. singers, thank you very much, that's all we need.

The orchestra played well for Mr Braithwaite, who held it all together if not with anything revelatory, then with precision.

John Wegner always manages to outsing his size, and after a wobbly start (something he shared with Daniel Sumegi's Daland), this was no exception. Dark, angry, frustrated, determined, jilted, he did it all, German as good as, and received the first 'aria' applause I've ever heard in Wagner, as a few overexcited members couldn't keep their hands apart after a booming Day of Judgement Day of Doom.

Margaret Medlyn's Senta was more of a struggle, hampered by a very nervous start, one of those mouth-open-nothing-coming-out scary few moments, but she settled in, and apart from one worrying pitch derailing, she made it through the killer role. Her voice has neither the colour nor cut that a great redeeming Senta needs, a voice to break curses and court death and extinction for love.

Daland was in good hands with big Daniel Dumegi and Erik in the very capable hands of Peter Grimes. No, sorry, that's Stuart Skelton. Revisiting the theatre of his wonderful Siegmund, Stuart Skelton sang a beautiful warm yet passionate Erik, pouring out that voice we know so well and blow me down if Senta doesn't take the little man.

Rounding it off were the fine sweet voiced Steersman of Angus Wood and the very impressive Mary by Katherine Tier, known to those who know but not to me, with a choice rich textured mezzo of considerable size. The chorus excelled themselves as usual and we were treated to some athletic extras of the look-at-me-I'm-dancing kind.

John Wegner (Dutchman), Stuart Skelton (Erik), Angus Wood (Steersman)

Katherine Tier (Mary), Daniel Sumegi (Daland), Margaret Medlyn (Senta), John Wegner (Dutchman), Stuart Skelton (Erik), Angus Wood (Steersman)

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