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Melbourne Opera: The Flying Dutchman

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Published: 8th February, 2019
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The qualities of this performance were strongly anticipated in the chatter around Melbourne in the weeks leading up to the opening. This anticipation was also evident from the excitement in the foyer for a good hour beforehand. As the Dutchman’s reputation preceded him, so did reputation of this production.

Conductor Anthony Negus’ Tristan und Isolde was a high point of 2018, so Melbourne Opera’s Flying Dutchman was expected to be a triumph, and this performance was wonderful. Negus’ program notes were terrific, illustrating the state of flux in which the work existed in the composer’s own mind, as well as the shaping of subsequent productions. The program notes were a most worthwhile read.

It was Wagner’s instruction to perform the whole in one piece – 2 hours and 20 minutes, without an interval — and his wishes were observed here. Though I suffered some fear at that level of unrelieved concentration, the narrative arc and dramatic unfolding of the work were perfectly judged so that this was not the imposition one might expect. The libretto itself is slow moving dramatically at times, yet the richness of the music, the staging, the variety in textures and the quality of the performers meant that everything unfolded at just the rate it needed to – by the end I was astonished that interest had been maintained throughout so effortlessly. Of course, we know how much work is involved in getting the production to do that, so all the more admiration here for Melbourne Opera doing such amazing things with scant resources – truly remarkable!

Wagner, of course, is famous for vocal writing that pushes performers to the very edge – an athletic level of ability has to be developed, and then pressed into the service of artistry. It is easy to see why many singers need to spend half their lives in preparation for these roles.

Darren Jeffrey as Der Hollander has all that is needed for this – the power, the range, the clarity and stage presence. He delivered this vocally and dramatically demanding role while giving the impression of relative ease – a performance in that sweet spot where a shine comes from a performer being working with writing that challenges the technique just so.

Lee Abrahmsen was glorious as Senta, the girl whose obsession with the mythical Hollander leads her to resist the love of her grown up childhood companion Erik – who in every way would have been a perfect suitor.  It is a huge sing in every way – range, length of phrases, sustained power and exemplary clarity. Abrahmsen met the challenges of this writing magnificently, and made us really feel for her emotional journey.

Stephen Gallop as Daland – Senta’s father – brought a sustained energy and dramatic believability throughout – which is one of the bigger challenges of this role.  His eagerness to volunteer his daughter as bride to the Dutchman was handled with wonderful humour here.

Rosario La Spina did beautifully as Erik, again balancing the vocal demands with the dramatic with great effect.

Roxane Hislop brought a mature warmth and subtlety to her role as Mary, Senta’s nurse.

Michael Lapina though in the smaller role of der Steuermann managed to bring enough charm to be an audience favourite.

Not only was the main chorus vast, but this production also enjoys a completely independent large chorus for the sailors from the ghost ship. The interaction between the two groups was brilliantly lively, and the action heightened by this.

The choruses are a highlight of this score – and as beautiful as the work with the orchestra was, it was the a capella chorus that gave me goosebumps. Though I have heard recordings of the work, there is something so moving about hearing this live that makes it a completely fresh and compelling experience.

The choruses also moved with wonderful ease, and apparent spontaneity. This is due to the work of Music Theatre star Verity Hunt-Ballard here. This aspect was a delight. Harriet Oxley’s costumes were a delight – evoking both an indistinct past, with contemporary interpretation. I particularly enjoyed the appearance of the ghost sailors.

Andrew Bailey’s set design gave remarkable effects to the limited stage area of the Regent. The central sculpture – moving and changing to transform into a range of settings with ease and grace – was most effective.

Rob Sowinski’s lighting design seamlessly allowed transformation of time, place and weather to great effect. Surtitles were effective translations of the German and were well synchronized with the performance.

The large orchestra led by Anthony Negus gave this score a beautifully expressive yet lively read. There was an energy of excitement maintained throughout. It is clear that this man has a very special rapport with the musicians.

On a note of personal interest – the chorus contained a number of students I had worked with in my job at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and the VCA, and of course it is always fulfilling to see them moving into their careers in productions such as these, but there was an extra sense of delight in seeing them rubbing shoulders here with a number of ‘names’ – well established performers in the choruses too – from whom they will gain so much.

The psychological depths of this work retain a sense of enigma even a century after Freud and Jung. Suzanne Chaundy’s piece in the program not only helps to explain how as director she dealt with some of the ambiguities present in the libretto, but also highlights aspects of the text that remain open to interpretation that I found myself pondering for days after the performance. The whole was an enriching experience.

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Peter Hurley reviewed Melbourne Opera’s The Flying Dutchman at Regent Theatre on 3 February, 2019.