This ENO production has been widely praised. It left me completely cold and fairly unimpressed. Pondering this overnight, I do think it is possible that going straight from Glass on Friday to Wagner last night simply overloaded my system and I was just not in the right place to get on with this performance. I also think it's possible that my ears were spoilt for this by having so recently heard really first rank Wagner under the baton of the man himself in Berlin. Finally, I conclude that this is an opera that I just do not like very much. Allowing for all these caveats, let me try and explain why for me this evening did not work.
The first issue is the work itself. This is only the second time I've heard it live. The previous occasion was the last time ENO mounted it in the unsuccessful elastic band production. It didn't make much impression muscially on me then, and a second hearing has not changed my mind. It does not seem to me that the Dutchman shows much evidence of Wagner having developed beyond the thin inspiration of Rienzi, and I find it interesting that the far more developed and fascinating Tannhauser fails to hold a comparable place in the repertoire.
The second issue is the problematic question of benchmarks. Quite a few of my recent Wagnerian performances have been truly musically great – in this category I would include the Berlin Lohengrin, the Glyndebourne Meistersinger, the Royal Opera Tannhauser and Lohengrin – all of them were strong (in two cases extremely powerfully so) in production terms. I just do not think that this performance/production of The Flying Dutchman got near that category. In a sense it seemed to me to illustrate the gulf that exists between the Coliseum and those other companies. Now you can of course argue that those other companies have greater resources, can employ the best singers and conductors in the world and so on and so forth. Perhaps the comparison is an unfair one, but I found it last night inescapable.
Turning to the specifics of the evening. I had high hopes of Jonathan Kent following his blazing Die Frau ohne Schatten at last year's Edinburgh Festival, but this production is regrettably half baked. Kent can't quite seem to make up his mind whether all the action is taking place in Senta's mind or in reality. This indecision rather hampers one's emotional engagement. The production lacked the knack of creating telling tension and engagement between the principals – something which the Berlin Lohengrin despite other flaws was more than capable of doing. There are some striking visual images – the brooding presence of the Dutchman's ship in particular, but there are also unsuccessful elements of the bizarre like the inflated cactus (and indeed the costuming generally) in the party scene.
With respect to the singers I just didn't think that most of them could be considered to be of the first rank. With the exception of Stuart Skelton's Erik none of the others really have voices big enough or rich enough for the parts they are trying to sing. James Creswell as the Dutchman and Clive Bayley as Daland make creditable efforts but still sound underpowered in places. Orla Boylan as Senta I found just not up to it. She sounded strained and was unpleasant to listen to for much of the evening, and the less said about her diction the better. She does deliver her final notes with power and richness, but this was for me sadly a case of too little too late.
The chorus generally sang well, although there were still moments when I thought there was fractional failures of precision. The off-stage chorus of the Dutchman's crew sounded very bizarre, even possibly recorded. Like a similar effect in the recent Hoffmann this was a mistake. The orchestral playing was similarly perfectly fine, my problem was with Gardner's interpretation of the score. For me (and bearing in mind the caveats with which I began) there was a lack of that crucial sense of intensity and momentum. His reading just did not compare to the readings of those other operas by Runnicles, Bychkov and Jurowski. Those conductors showed themselves to be truly first class Wagnerians – Gardner has, on this reading, got some way to go.
As I said out the outset, this may have been a problem with me not with what was going on on stage and in the pit, but this was a performance which just did not grab me.