The Flying Dutchman

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

By Richard Wagner; Presented by New Zealand Opera
Directed by Matthew Lutton; Conducted by Wyn Davies
St James Theatre, Wellington | September 14-21
ASB Theatre, Auckland | October 5-12

Richard Wagner’s early Romantic opera The Flying Dutchman weaves a tale in the imaginative territory somewhere between life and death. The modern dramatic score is the real draw card here, providing the listener with a variety of musical and rhythmic textures, scintillating, brooding, and ecstatic.

New Zealand Opera’s production of this foaming, sea-salt crested opera is a real treat, artfully realised through sensitive casting and a clear design. First mention goes to the exceptional conducting of Wyn Davies, his Wagnerian debut nonetheless, whose command of the NZSO provided a robust musical context.

Briefly, a plot summary: we’re transported to a coast where Daland and his crew struggle against a raging storm, eager to return home. The crew settle to sleep as the tempest abates. A ghost ship looms from the darkness. Cursed to sail the seas for all eternity, The Dutchman may return to shore once every seven years to find a bride. If she proves faithful unto death he shall gain his respite. The Dutchman requests Daland’s hospitality, promising riches in exchange for his daughter’s hand.

Senta, our heroine, is pursued by Erik a young woodcutter. However, infatuated by the tragedy of The Dutchman’s plight she commits herself to the marriage. The Dutchman stumbles upon Erik begging Senta’s favour, accuses Senta of betrayal and returns to his ship. In a fit of ecstasy Senta throws herself into the ocean, fulfilling her promise and lifting The Dutchman’s curse. Fin.

The Romantic masterpiece is possessed by an eternal search for love, masculine damnation alleviated by near-mystical feminine redemption, and the contradiction of choosing one’s own fate. Psychology and spirituality are engaged in constant power play as both lovers are at once human and beyond human (ghost and angel).

The emotional intensity of the opera demands both acting and vocal skill, with particular stress placed on the juxtaposed relationships of those within society and those it has marginalised. Setting the scene, the Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus provide excellent accompaniment, although the women’s chorus lacked a little panache in the opening of Act 2.

Unfortunately the relationship between Jason Howard as The Dutchman and Orla Boylon as Senta is quite wooden, but both performers certainly strike emotional climaxes vocally. Howard’s Dutchman is cold and detached, and like his ghost ship seems to half exist in another mystical realm. Boylon’s Senta by contrast is fervent, impulsive, and full of conviction.

Paul Whelan and Peter Auty give wonderful performances as Daland and Erik respectively, achieving a fine balance between love and greed. They are loveable in the cruellest sense, and their two characters strike an unexpected parallel in their endearing naivety. Wendy Doyle is a formidable Mary, and finally Shaun Dixon’s impish Steersman is an exemplary crowd pleaser with his foolish antics and jewel-like croons.

Zoë Atkinson’s design is ambitious to say the least and a great achievement. The satisfying integration of design and action proves neither distracting nor dull. At its heart is the conspicuous manipulation of space, similar to the imaginative scope of the text; from the cramped quarters of a ship to a public working house, the visual (and metaphorical) frame continuously contracts and expands.

At times there is a discontinuity in the performers’ relation to props as object or metaphor; although this may be an intentional blurring between internal action and theatrical device, it rings a little hollow. Jon Buswell’s lighting design supports the overall production very well.

The Flying Dutchman is a testament to the international standard one can expect from New Zealand Opera. The first in a number of collaborations between the NZO and Opera Queensland, the production’s excellence hangs in the integrity and complexity of the execution, so many thanks to director Matthew Lutton. This makes for compelling entertainment.