The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Monday, June 8, 2009

ROH Fliegende Hollander - heavy slog through thick swamp

This had to be one of the worst broadcasts of Wagner I have heard in a long time - perhaps since a 1992 Houston Grand Opera Lohengrin - conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. Houston did an appreciably better Flying Dutchman than this in 1998, if memory serves me correctly - even if just on musical grounds.

Netherlands Opera music director-designate Marc Albrecht, making his Convent Garden debut, made it clear that he was very certain that he had arrived to the best part of this opera, the good stuff, when Act 3 started - so much so, Act 3 alone is reason enough to add this to any party or joke CD collection – should it come available.

Anja Kampe (Senta) was sympathetic enough as seafarer-struck maiden. She however had a middle that proved unpredictable and top whenever under pressure that turned strident. She got herself locked into following Albrecht (not any relation with the more famous Gerd Albrecht) on a tempo a bit too slow singing the first part of the refrain in her ballad into singing it almost perfectly note-by-note before applying a dreamy cast over the closing lines of her ballad’s repeated refrain.

Whereas Kampe conveyed hardly any real passion for the Dutchman, she did manage to convincingly lead one or two ensembles toward the end of the opera that tonally could have nearly fallen apart, according to true sense of pitch, otherwise. The part of Senta in effect has a pair of what resemble lines of peroration. For Kampe the first one certainly turned out fine, with me thinking that at least she had helped bring all to a fine conclusion. As for the really concluding line, she in effect rolled up her sleeves as if to say, ‘I’ve really gotta give this some balls!’ So, she revved it up, lunged at two long pitches above the staff with all her might, thus overtly a high B skidded off the runway before she could freely let go. Her climb up an F-sharp major chord to raw A-sharp near end of Act Two duet was also, lets say, mildly out of character.

Hans Peter Koenig (Daland) certainly revealed ample voice, flexibility for what his part demands. Intonation was good. What prevented him from giving much of any noticeable interpretation of Senta’s old man was his frequent rhythmic sloppiness. He, other than in his well-sung aria in Act Two, made somewhat of a milque-toast out of him, kind of your garden variety fuddy-duddy. For what turned into the ‘Wir wunderbar’ waltz during Act One, for instance, he helped Albrecht cut the number of beats per measure from four down to nearly three.

For ‘Wie wunderbar,’ I would have expected to see Daland in sports coat or white leisure suit – soft purr of an organ playing in the background alongside the orchestra and trio of Lennon sisters right behind him, as take your pick, his three extra daughters or as just simply hired back-up. All the octogenarian couples could then be out on the dance floor in front of cameras, with bright lights, champagne, hors d’oeuvres as happy as peach at how indeed wunderbar all really indeed is.

Torsten Kerl played Erik. The part starts off forcefully, so Kerl squeezed to get first top G out. While singing relaxed especially in lower register that way, he sounded pleasant, but even a few lower passages still stuck in the throat. I mistook him, just singing in lower register for about one page in Act Two, for Terfel in a relaxed moment, but then his music jumped up to singing around an octave higher and then one was really sure of who it really was. Oppressive squeezing around the break and above persisted throughout. Kerl rendered “Willst jenes Tag” (Act 3) altogether without charm - with two painfully flat acuti. His handling of a couple of turns in lower register at the end of the aria had me expecting Senta to ask him which brand of mouthwash – for maybe how good it smells, but hardly at all for how he sounds using it.

John Tessier sang as bad a Steersman as I can recall hearing. His first phrase, starting a bit low, sounded like process of clearing the throat; he practically spoke it instead of singing it. One could hear good suggestion of the pitches, but I hope he will remain alone the one truly sprechstimme Steersman I have ever heard for a long time coming. He would sweetly, coyly bleat around the break, making him perhaps decent enough tenor to play a G&S lead – but he most certainly has no business doing Wagner. Clare Shearer made the acceptable, doting, house mezzo Mary one often expects so many places. How is it that Royal Opera can not do any better in casting parts like these?

As for Bryn Terfel, perhaps the less said, the better. His voice sounded precariously worn at the edges from lower middle register on down and also on top. He could still flexibly sing, make lyrical some mellifluous passages; his interest in the text and the angst filling out the part of the lonesome, eternally wandering seafarer were still clearly evident. However, he could only minimally provide the color that should envelop the sound, thus his singing robbed this character of its certain and quintessential air of mystery. The opening of “Der Frist ist um” was a case in point.

He, like Koeng, also tended to clip numerous passages. Most notably however, Terfel also corrected Albrecht by singing “Nur eine Hoffnung” (the “Nur eine Hoffnung” waltz – how Albrecht conducted it) during the Act One monologue with more correct sense of rhythm and phrasing. It was Terfel, as much as anybody could tell, who, rhetorically speaking, needed the clipping, not the conductor – to make time pass more quickly? His outcries in Act Three were not so out of character as just lacking in sufficient power to carry the day. His rendering of them were hardly more terrifying than what might be from a Beckmesser, Schigolch, or Barak. What hurt matters significantly, perhaps most of all for Terfel was the wonky, highly uneven support that Marc Albrecht provided him.

The biggest culprit in this mess was indeed the man occupying the podium. There was indeed an idea here, something about breaks, in a modernist sense, but hardly any honestly developed concept at all of what Fliegende Hollander is about or anything to make coherent sense of it. The first sign of serious trouble happened in the overture, as a very start-and-stop trudge through its ‘Senta’s Ballad’ episode. Whereas the orchestra had moderately engaged the color, stormy sea already, this section broke apart into eight distinct sections, robbing it of line and sweep. Brass twice too easily covered up the violins as well and ensemble turned ragged.

Once the choruses started, one got a cheapening of just about everything. The sailors frequently sounded raucous, the women shrill. The strident high A’s, just belted out, during cabaletta to the spinners’ chorus after Senta’s Ballad were comparable to squeaky chalk on a blackboard, or enough to start dogs howling a full block away. The ‘laughing’ thirty-second note runs for the spinning maidens were accented, bumped forward so hard, I could mistake them for a retrograde, sped up version of the huntsmens’ chorus from Wozzeck - using women instead of men.

The incurable overemphasis Albrecht lent the Norwegians’ chorus in Act Three with accents in it just misplaced enough was so risible, one sensed John Cleese might enter at any moment to finish leading such picture of strapping youth on stage. The Dutchmen came in as though a marauding pack of beagles or basset hounds. Terrifying indeed! This was the fun part. It had seemed a long time in coming.

What made so much of the rest of this make Gotterdammerung on just merely a good average day seem like a walk in the park by comparison was obvious. This was a Dutchman so lacking in atmosphere, line, and passion generated from within that to try figuring out how one thing could possibly relate to the next thing or another would make one have to stop and go back once or twice (which unfortunately one can on BBC). If a day at sea, it was just as well a day lost at sea - as a heavy slog through the mud up a little over ankle deep. Many rhythms went askew, either by clipping, excessive placement of often misplaced accents, or both.

A great example overall of how everything went was the Act 2 closing duet “Wie aus der Ferne” with Terfel and Kampe. Opening lines were slithery in pitch from Bryn Terfel. Certainly here and there from both singers were strands of good phrasing, but in the big arch to a number of lines Kampe and Terfel were out at sea as to where to find from Albrecht crucially needed support for what they were singing - and often to no avail. Afterwards, with having sung for twelve minutes without such assistance, we then got the more rapid passages.. Terfel just had had to awkwardly negotiate dotted rhythm intervals of thirds and fourths back and forth across the break, so started to bray away at everything, and with everything in terms of organization turning into a real free-for-all. The allegretto Li’l Lord Fauntleroy waltz-march finale to Act Two Wagner marked a very rapid paced terzetto came across quite Disney-esque.

Albrecht’s earlier sectional, start-and-stop leadership of “Wirst du das Vaters.” was highly indicative of how so much of this Dutchman went. There should be something nobler, heroic in mind with such a passage than watching it arrive in detached little pieces or fragments. It was becoming after a while observing this score as one might a body that has suddenly fallen off a thirty story building. There’s a hand over here, an eyeball over there, some guts laying over there in the grass ten yards away, some strands of hair along the curb nearby, etc. And yet Tim Albery, the insipid producer of what looks from photos to be a truly mediocre production said that doing Dutchman without breaks (between acts) keeps the vitality of this music going. Breaks interrupt it – though Albrecht spoke of not being afraid of the internal breaks between the bel canto of this music and more progressive aspects of it. It takes neither rocket scientist nor nuclear physicist to tell that this Fliegende Hollander had breaks in it alright.

Even though Marc Albrecht even coincidentally studied with Gerd Albrecht though unrelated, one would think on the one hand that something would’ve rubbed off - moreover that Netherlands Opera might have to come up with better than this to follow their outgoing guy and their one man also so good for many years right beforehand - Edo De Waart. I had not sought such tawdry results in the least by tuning into this. There was reminder of Sinopoli, even a little of Klemperer in Albrecht’s approach. However, usually even with early Sinopoli, one noticed clearer goals in mind than evident here.

I might like to produce Fliegende Hollander and assisted by picking up some tips from Peter Konwitschny as to how to really go about it. Put it on a Mississippi River paddle boat; have the get-up on board be such as to resemble brightly lit Branson, Missouri. The Dutchmen in Act 3 could be an invading civil rights riot. Now, that would be thoroughly entertaining, instead of just for one act. In what has already been a Konwitschny production, Senta’s fellow spinners work out on their stationary bikes and then to close the entire opera Senta drops something in the bar below deck and blows up the entire ship. If Wagner heard this performance of Dutchman, he would definitely not miss anything by seeing the company doing this completely blow up and disappear. All Peter left out, in how he staged it, was hardly more than just ‘peaches and cream.’

Instead of feeling awed by the force of a tempest on the North Sea - sea and wind driven at least metaphorically by occultist pagan Dutch hordes - I, upon hearing in Act 3 passage of string sextuplets, felt like standing up and shouting ‘Long live crank-start electric lawnmower carburetors!’ No, to further paraphrase Dutch journalist Erik Voermans, this Fliegende Hollander presented us with no (high) level or sheen of finesse at all.

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