Wagner Der fliegende Hollander, Royal Opera House, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

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.