Why anyone these days would want to perform Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer with an interval when even the three act version was so plainly fashioned to be performed without one is beyond me. There is that tell-tale repetition of the music ending act one at the beginning of act two – a kind of “Previously in The Flying Dutchman” moment expressly designed to carry us across the scene change to that crucial meeting between Senta and the Dutchman. Wagner instinctively knew that, notwithstanding his provision for a significant scene change, an interval would be ruinous to the dramatic momentum of the piece. In concert performance there is no such excuse.
At least Zurich Opera took us back to the original overture – though with a cut-back orchestra, the so-called Philharmonia Zurich, just five double basses, puddingy timpani playing, and only a modicum of electricity from the somewhat workaday conductor Alain Altinoglu – its perfomance didn’t exactly bring the elements of wind and pounding seas roaring off the page and into the Festival Hall. No atmosphere on stage, either, with standard bright concert platform lighting and formal dress all round. So far, so tepid.
But enter the Dutchman – in the towering, implacable form of Bryn Terfel – and enter the drama. You could hear and feel from his opening monologue just why this role, this ravaged, elemental, character is so mouth wateringly well suited to Terfel’s vocal and dramatic gifts but with the text now honed to coruscating effect, with words rasping home with bitter intent and defiance and scorn wrung from every bar, Terfel has advanced to a new level with this repertoire. The dynamic range, and with it the variations in colour, is now enormous and with that prayerful closing section of the monologue in which he so chillingly addresses the terms of his salvation there is now along with vulnerability a mysteriousness and remoteness in the most extraordinary pianissimo singing.
The evening also renewed our acquaintance with another well-weathered star of the operatic stage – the great Matti Salminen as Daland. Again words and more words in an infinite variety of nuance. And he still has plenty of voice to carry them into the farthest reaches of the hall. Daland’s self-interest was never so wryly conveyed – but so too the remnants of a father’s love for his only daughter.
To see Salminen and Terfel – giant figures turned grizzled marriners even in full evening dress – engaged in their unsavory negotiations was theatrical gold, for sure, but so, too, the woman who had united them. Anja Kampe (Senta) is one of those unstinting performers who fears no consequence beyond the moment she is in. Senta is not a role lyric-dramatic sopranos carry with them into long careers and the fact that Kampe still sings it doesn’t bode well for her longevity. What she can no longer give us is vulnerability. There is no fragility in pianissimo for her – the voice doesn’t really speak in the softer, more ethereal, dynamics. But she is passionate and committed and then some and you accept the little disasters like her drop-out at the climax of the love duet and all those shouty top notes that are only there by sheer force of will.
And let’s spare a thought for poor hapless Erik – a late replacement in Martin Homrich who had a decent shot at a largely thankless role and managed even to find (as had the more accomplished Stuart Skelton at ENO last season) moments of tangible tenderness in it but whose irritating habit of barking his agitation with accents at the beginning of every phrase wore very quickly thin.
As for the all-important Zurich Opera House Chorus, they weren’t always well-unified (especially the women in the spinning scene) and stood on ceremony more than they stood in the teeth of the approaching gale. Altinoglu generated a little more electricity with the arrival of the Dutchman’s ghostly chorus in act three (how could he not – it’s all there in the lightening-streaked music) but despite the offstage wind machine and Wagner’s unrelenting energy it didn’t conjure the requisite imagery for me.
That came with the storming trio of the final scene where the unholy trio of Terfel, Salminen, and Kampe were themselves the unbridled forces of nature. Audiences love the larger than life and this fiery triumvirate is undoubtedly what brought so many of them to their feet.