Opera Review: The Flying Dutchman – Scottish Opera

11. Scottish Opera's The Flying Dutchman. Credit James Glossop. 2013.

Theatre Royal, Glasgow – 4 April 2013

Rating: ★★½☆☆

This review should appear at Opera Britannia in due course.

An underwhelming lead and a mismatched cast make this Scottish Opera production something of a mixed bag. However, one stunning voice and an absolutely electric chorus offer some reasons for seeing this production.

Scottish Opera attempts to bring the Dutchman home at last in this production which is set, not in Norway but on the east coast of Scotland as Wagner had apparently considered when he was writing it. Thus, Darland becomes Donald and Erik the huntsman becomes George the minister. Sadly, someone missed a trick not renaming Senta as Senga, the local diminutive backslang for Agnes and Senta remained Senta throughtout.

During the overture, the stage was filled with a confusing projected cloud scene and rather strangely the house lights came up and went down for no apparent reason. This somehow caught the mood of the orchestra who from beginning to end were playing well below their top form. Fluffed entries, particularly in the horns and higher woodwind and intonation problems in every section were the order of the evening.

It was something of a relief when the curtain rose to reveal an interesting and inventive set. On his travels this time, the Dutchman was apparently drawing into an east coast fishing town about forty years ago. We saw one side of the pier wall of a harbour with the boats appearing beyond in the distance. Donald’s boat appeared and soon the male chorus of sailors was appearing on stage. climbing up onto the harbour. Leaving aside the question of how so many of them came from what appeared to be a relatively small boat, it was one of the most convincing vessels I’ve ever seen on stage, the pilot house bobbing about on the far side of the wall as though the whole thing was afloat.

The idea of setting all the action in the Scottish port rather than either out at sea or in Norway was a brave choice but one which the director  Harry Fehr can feel rightly rather proud of. It worked very well.

The spookiest moment in the production was taken by the first appearance of the ghost ship. Whilst Donald’s boat was all too real, the spectral vessel was projected onto an enormous backstage screen in silhouette completely dominating the stage. This was Video Designer Ian William Galloway’s finest hour and we can forgive him one or two extra swirling clouds for this brooding and quite frightening presence.

But what about the singing?

First up on the pier were Donald the captain and his helmsman accompanied by an enormous cast of fishermen. Nicky Spence  as the randy helmsman had perhaps the most interesting voice of the men on stage. His cocky tone was matched by much swaggering about. Whereas Spence had colour in his voice, Scott Wilde as Donald the Captain had volume on offer. Perhaps he had come to the piece aware that he would be fighting Francesco Corti’s direction of the orchestra which was too loud as usual. Wilde adopted the manner of a foghorn in order to make himself heard through the murk and the mist of the sounds from the pit. Though we could hear him, not a great deal of emotion was conveyed by a voice which was harsh and lacked any real sympathy with the text.

And then on came the Dutchman.

Peteris Eglitis has been promoted by Scottish Opera as a great catch for this role. Singing the Flying Dutchman for the first time, Eglitis has considerable Wagnerian experience to draw on. That made it all the more surprising that his performance was decidedly underwhelming and lacking in lustre. One suspects that he might have had an interesting interpretation had he been able to overcome the presence of the orchestra. However that was not to be and rather than a sense of excitement in his singing there was a rather dull tone which left one feeling slightly disappointing.

The best singing of Act I came undeniably from the huge cast of sailors. They brought a high testosterone energy to the piece which kept the spirits up admirably. They were equally matched by a similarly large crowd of women awaiting them on shore in Act II. The women had the advantage of an astonishing female lead to rally around in the form of Rachel Nicholls’s Senta who was by a long distance the best voice on the stage.

Miss Nicholls had drama, passion and a kind of manic determination to find her true love that made one sure that this flying Scotswoman was going to be the equal of anything the sea blew in and more. Her singing of the ballad of the Flying Dutchman (Traft ihr das Schiff im Meere an) was riveting. Indeed it was worth seeing the whole show for. There was a crazed intensity about her voice which was perfect for the piece.

Solid support came from Sarah Pring’s Mary and Jeff Gwaitney’s George. However, there was no real doubt that once we had heard Miss Nicholls, everyone else was going to pale into insignificance. Quite why George was a minister wearing a dog-collar as well as a hunter carrying a gun was never entirely obvious. He needed the gun at the end of the piece to finish things off, but what he was doing wandering about making the sign of the cross was something of a mystery.

Act III took us back to the pier and some more electric choral singing. The vocal battle between Donald’s sailors and those of the ghost-ship was unconventional (the spectres voices being amplified through speakers behind us in the auditorium) but hugely exciting. It was as though the audience suddenly became the waves separating the two competing choruses. This was the high point of the dramatic action of the evening. However this was somewhat undone by the rather effete revels of the sailors which lacked any sense of confidence.

The director had employed Movement Director Kally Lloyd-Jones  to reflect on what should be done with a crowd of drunken sailors and her answer was that they should do the conga. One suspects that a real bunch  of Peterhead fishermen would have headed for a white pudding supper and a pint of heavy. These men appeared to be satisfied with neat diagonally-cut sandwiches and some party hats. They then proceeded to do the conga across the stage. Unless this was the hitherto little known party habits of the Morningside Fishing Fleet, this was a moment of silly banality in a show that had seemed to want to convey something much more butch and brutal.

Ultimately, all came to an unconventional end. Senta didn’t throw herself off a cliff but took a knife to herself to prove herself true to her Dutchman in death. Jealous George the minister then appeared to finish off the Dutchman with the gun that he had been inexplicably carrying for the whole of the evening. There was the guts of a good idea here but George’s incoherent character did rather get in the way of something solid and satisfying.

Though this production had much to commend it in the singing of the chorus and in Miss Nicholls astonishing performance there were also too many things that got in the way of a perfect night out. The cast was mismatched from the word go and once those singers had been chosen, one suspects that there was little that could be done to sort things out. The orchestra should have been playing better though one wonders whether it was simply a case of being under-rehearsed rather than incompetent. Perhaps things will improve during the run. If so, it is a management problem and not fundamentally a musical one.

All in all, a mixed bag. Next time the Flying Dutchman puts into port, one hopes for a tighter production than this one.

Two and a half stars.

Picture Credit: James Glossop