June 13, 1986

Wagner’s Depths Explored

The Flying Dutchman by Richard Wagner; director Bernd Benthaak; with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. conducted by John Matheson; at the Opera Theatre. Adelaide, until June 21. Cast: Malcolm Donnelly, Beverley Bergen, Arend Baumann and Thomas Edmonds.

Commentators have often been swift to chide and slow to bless The Flying Dutchman when comparing it to the consummate accomplishment of Wagner’s later work.

Certainly its mechanical division between aria, recitative and ensemble is typical of operatic form which Wagner himself was later to overhaul and redefine.

Writers such as Ernest Newman have bemoaned The Flying Dutchman’s “unimpressive stretches of unmusical declamation” while others have remarked that it lacks the “endless melody” of The Ring and Tristan.

There are a few worries with the narrative as well. Wagner’s inspirations for the opera appear to have been various – he had read Heine’s version of the story but appears to have rendered the tale more earnestly, perhaps in partial identification with the luckless Dutchman.

By the age of 30 Wagner had been pushed from pillar to post in his bid for recognition and reliable patronage. He was homesick for Germany and most significantly he began to cleave to the romantic theme that became a hallmark in his work – redemption through the constancy of a woman’s love.

It takes a nimble interpretation to steer through the potential silliness of this particular exemplum of salvation through love, because Wagner has not made crucial details sufficiently clear.

Senta’s motivation in devoting herself to the Dutchman is hazy to say the least and the uncertain status of her betrothal to the flabbergasted Erik further complicates things.

Also, while no one expects consistency in operatic plots, it is hard not to think that her father Daland is rather obtuse in failing to recognise the Dutchman from the full-length portrait he has in his own living room.

Nevertheless The Flying Dutchman is full of splendid set pieces which Benthaak’s production does much to highlight.

The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under John Matheson extracts all of the colour and sense of portent from the overture that one could wish for and Geoffrey Harris’ fluent Steersman’s song is one of the real pleasures in Act I.

Baritone Malcolm Donnelly, while looking more like a prosperous grocer than a gaunt and spectral seafarer, nevertheless brings a gravity and assurance to his performance which unfortunately is not always matched by Arend Baumann’s often fluttered bass as Daland.

Ken Wilby and Mark Thompson’s ambitious designs are cumbersome, with Daland’s ship in perilously close proximity to the Dutchman’s but their massive scale and the murky lighting successfully compound the sense of a ghastly dream evoked by the music in Act 1.

The Spinning Chorus in Act II (like the sailors’ chorus later) offers some of the best chorus work heard in State Opera productions in recent years.

Wilby and Thompson’s costume designs in browns, fawns and cream are particularly effective. The set however is more cluttered Vermeer than Norwegian maritime.

Beverley Bergen’s Senta is a mixed success. Her aria declaring her devotion to the Dutchman and vowing to break the curse upon him begins strikingly as she moves from frozen tableau into passionate conviction. But, as the intensity increases, her facility diminishes and her performance becomes uncomfortably strained.

Act III brings all of the composer’s haunting motifs together with the garbled threads of his narrative.

The set made up of iron scaffolding and lead-lined windows depicts a dockside warehouse which enhances the eeriness of Senta’s conflict as she gives the heave-ho ·to earthly Erik and prepares to heave to with the other-worldly Hollander.

The trio with Senta on an iron staircase drawn by the beguiling voices of Donnelly and Edmonds is so compelling in its visual symmetry and thematic simplicity that we are not prepared for Benthaak’s truncated ending.

While Wagner’s idea of the transfiguration of the two lovers, after Senta has leapt from a cliff top to be with the Dutchman, is likely to be problematic for modern audiences, Benthaak short-circuits the work completely with Senta’s abrupt and banal suicide.

The audience is thus refused the resolving gratification of Wagner’s closing themes.

After all, by this stage we have waded too far into Wagnerian waters to be content with anything too existentially downbeat.

Nevertheless, Benthaak ‘s production of The Flying Dutchman is a memorable and satisfying one and the State Opera celebrates its 10th anniversary season with a distinguished performance.

The National Times, June 13, 1986, p.31.

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