Great things were expected of Paul Daniel's debut production as music director of English National Opera. And with Willard White, right, starring as Wagner's `Flying Dutchman', the wind seemed set fair for success. Edward Seckerson was at Monday's first n
The electric storm arrives a split-second before Wagner, momentarily stealing the composer's thunder. But before you can take it in, those sizzling open fifths have ignited in the strings and the Dutchman's horns are driving into the wind. Suddenly the whole sea is boiling. Billowing drapes turn the Coliseum stage into an oceanic cauldron, while louring silhouettes of the mythical sea captain can be sensed rather than seen in its midst. Stein Winge's new English National Opera production doesn't get much better than this. In fact, it doesn't get better at all.

Designer Timian Alsaker has one more big trick, one more imposing visual metaphor, up his sleeve, but it promises (like so much of the evening) a whole lot more than it delivers. When the entire floor of the stage slowly rears up to reveal the underbelly of the Dutchman's ship, elasticated slats suggesting both its timbers and the rippling surface and relected light of the restless deep, the timing may as yet leave something to be desired (as indeed may the lighting designer, Hans-Ake Sjoquist), but we are at least intrigued, drawn by something that is as mysterious as it is grandiose. And then almost at once Winge is confounding our expectations with the ignoble entrance of his hero, depositing him on stage in such a way as to suggest that the sea has reluctantly given him up but will almost certainly reclaim him.

Here, as elsewhere, though, the execution is flawed. And timing is only a part of it. The stagecraft is curiously unfinished, even tentative, as if still at rehearsal and not performance pitch. The great love duet, for instance, the still-centre of the entire piece, is a scene frozen in time and space, but Winge's blocking of it (oddly mundane) does nothing to heighten or intensify its physical and spiritual other-worldliness. And in that other key duet - between Senta and Erik in the final scene - a potentially strong effect suggesting the childhood sweethearts not waving but drowning, dragged quite literally beneath the prow of the Dutchman's accursed ship, is again crudely realised and unimaginatively lit (leaving one with a sneaky suspicion that this is opera-as-it-once-was hiding behind designs-as-they-now-are). Winge even blows the great chorus of confrontation with the Dutchman's ghostly crew, sending Daland's men fleeing prematurely from the stage where the music most demands their presence. Two or three ghostly figures bursting through the hull to abseil down ropes at the climax doesn't quite do it for Wagner. Again, the idea is good but half- baked.

Even Willard White, an incredible hulk of a Dutchman in high-collared leather greatcoat, is somehow diminished by the staging - and there's no presence greater than his. True, it's a sorely testing sing for him now. The voice eyeballs you with its conviction, just as it has always done, but the expressive possibilities are fast diminishing, particularly in the lower dynamics where the range of colour is at its narrowest. Rita Cullis's Senta (her "youth and beauty" cruelly mocked by the frumpiest of costumes) has plenty of voice and the stave-vaulting excitement of her ballad was just what the composer ordered (albeit a little nervous at the very top). But it was a good night for tenors, too - John Hudson's Steersman and David Rendall's Erik were both excellent - and the manly scrums of the chorus were, as expected, satisfyingly full-on.

As to the firm hand on the tiller - ENO's new steersman elect, Paul Daniel - we could hardly have wished for a more auspicious start to his tenure as Music Director. Wagner's one-act version of the opera (surely the only way now to give it) sits well with a musician of his patience and integrity. Daniel knows exactly where he's going and how to get there. He's not interested in short cuts of any kind. The excitement, the theatricality of this reading, was in its wholeness: it felt organic, resolute. And so did the orchestral playing. Significantly, he brought the leader of the orchestra up on stage with him for the curtain call. He's a company man is Paul Daniel, and he may have arrived just in time.

In repertory at ENO, the London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London WC2, to 17 Oct. Booking: 0171-632 8300

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