Music, Stage

The Flying Dutchman review (Palais Theatre, Melbourne)

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So, the boffins have come up with a very swish 3D animated backdrop to set the ocean scene and give a sense of scale equal to Wagner’s ambition. And it actually works quite well, albeit in a surprisingly old-fashioned sort of way.
This very enjoyable Victorian Opera production of The Flying Dutchman is the first in a series of planned collaborations with Deakin University’s Motion.Lab, so get set for more of those blue-tinted 3D glasses at the opera. But there’s another collaboration here, and one perhaps even more worthy of note —  with the Australian Youth Orchestra.
Conductor Richard Mills demands a high standard, and this wonderful group of “pre-professional” musicians rises to it admirably, and then some. It was a dauntless performance by the kids, and, too, in the midst of all the stormy tragic love, kind of joyful. This is Wagner which is light and lively, bubbling steadily through all its vast movements.
All round it’s a very fine cast, although director Roger Hodgman’s tends to leave them lying too long at anchor. Oskar Hillebrandt’s solemn Dutchman was either becalmed or tacking aimlessly for much of the first act, but he sang with purpose and power. American dramatic soprano Lori Phillips brought a warm, sensual tone, and her duet with Hillebrandt at the end of act two was a musical highlight. But it didn’t quite look as spectacular as it sounded. Wagner has the cursed captain and his would-be lover remain completely motionless when they first meet, paralysed by the shock of recognition. It should be a memorable image, but because stasis is the general rule in this production it lost some of its visual impact.
Bradley Daley is an ideal Erik, the jilted lover, level-headed but heart-broken, full of solid, simple emotions. Warwick Fyfe as Daland acts and sings very well, although perhaps at times he is too affected. At first his constant flapping and cringing makes an awkward contrast to the Dutchman’s stolid reserve, but there’s a contagious sense of perverse humour in his performance. He’s like a shrugging, clowning psychopomp, scurrying between two worlds, pimping his own daughter to one of Satan’s damned. He brings to the surface, I think, the essential absurdity of Daland’s character.
Toward the end of the third act, with passions gaining to their maximum, Hodgman’s minimalist direction almost finds its justification. What else is there to do but stand and deliver as that epic sound washes around you? Erik stage left with a sensible green waist-coat like the sensible green hills of Norway, the Dutchman stage right in his red coat, red like the sea turned to blood by a setting sun, and between them Senta, in littoral blue, on the edge of something grand. But overall Hodgman and his design team (Christina Smith and Matt Scott) are too much in awe of the animations, and have, perhaps, pushed simplicity to a fault.
There is an initial thrill of surprise when you see how detailed and smooth the animation is: rain falling, sails ruffling, clouds scudding. And it’s certainly something with a lot of potential; but it’s far from all-encompassing effect and doesn’t give you any of the jolts and jumps you get in 3D cinema. Only once does the technology really add something dynamic to the whole stage picture: during the introduction to act three, where the women’s spinning song blends with the music of the sailors, the camera eye plunges down from the mountains, through the little village, over the port and into the hold of a ship at anchor, at which point the chorus spring forth like a nest of tipsy ship rats.
The whole aesthetic is kind of retrograde mid-Victorian. They’ve chosen to set the play in the 1840, the period when the opera was written; the direction suggests the “park and bark” approach of eras past; and the animation hangs at the back of the stage like an elaborate painted scene. It’s the trompiest of trompe l’oeil, but it is still just landscape.
In his book Drama and the World of Richard Wagner, Dieter Borchmeyer writes that The Flying Dutchman combines the classical longing for a homeland, the medieval longing for death and the modern longing for novelty and innovation. Here the new technology here certainly has its moments, but it’s not what makes this production such an enjoyable experience. Where there is genuine vivifying charm, I think it comes more from the orchestra than the animation; their youth seethes in Wagner’s majesty and makes the revolution of this the first of his great operas rise and flow and delight.
[box]The Flying Dutchman played the Palais Theatre (until February 19). Image: Carlos E Bárcenas and the male chorus (by Jeff Busby).[/box]

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