Bryn Terfel has not been heard at Welsh National Opera for a decade, since his performance as Nick Shadow in the company's 1996 The Rake's Progress. Here, his Flying Dutchman doesn't disappoint but one singer, even one as great as Terfel, can't a Wagner night make, and the strengths and weaknesses of this new production are more various than one might expect.
David Pountney's staging, designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, is an infuriating mix of subtle perceptions and postmodern junk, with a musical core that somehow survives the visual onslaught. Sliding screens are configured as a ship's prow to create a labyrinth through which the Dutchman, Senta and Daland circulate in their quest for moral and emotional contact. There's no suggestion of sea or wind. Instead, Hopkins projects an interminable, distracting montage of often indistinct visual prompts - navigational equipment, repro antiques, phones - and close-ups of Terfel and Annalena Persson, as Senta, in various states of hope and despair. And there are the Eyes, challenging us to interpret while the music flies in one Ear and out the Other.
Pountney, however, is too much of a musician to ignore Wagner for long, and he respects his singers. He knows when to give space, how to integrate movement with emotional density, how to absorb stylistic inconsistencies. He handles the ghastly Erik (Ian Storey), that refugee from early Romantic opera, with tact. By insisting on Senta's affection for him, he makes sense both of her Dutchman obsession and of the Dutchman's distrust of her motives. It's only a pity that Storey sings and acts so one-dimensionally.
Pountney is also excellent in the Daland-Dutchman scenes, in the way, for instance, the Dutchman turns his back on Daland's (the admirable Gidon Saks) chatter. Such details perfectly reflect the vacillations of the music, and it's Pountney's innate feel for these issues of texture and style that give his staging its real, possibly lasting, sinew.
Through all this, Terfel sings incomparably, and Persson, less reliable in timbre, is still a moving Senta. Peter Wedd is an ardent Steersman, and the chorus are their sparkling selves, despite the usual ordeal by costume. Carlo Rizzi binds it all into a coherent arch of full-blown Wagner: no mean feat in the circumstances.
25 February, 1 & 3 March (0870 040 2000), then touring; see www.wno.org.uk
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