The Flying Dutchman

English National Opera. London Coliseum.

Review by Polly Hope

Wow, this is a biggy, a surprise and a huge success. Maybe the first time ever I've seen a Flying Dutchman that makes sense, if you can call an agonising series of linked obsessions sense.

Edward Gardner, the conductor, slid into the orchestra pit without anyone noticing, nary a nod or a bow to the audience. First thing we knew was a tremendous crash of raw sound as the overture took off at breakneck speed. Its brass bellowing at full volume, the music hit like the crashing waves projected onto the front scrim. Of course this is how Wagner's opera should start. His first great work with all the signs sprinkled in of what would come in later years.

Oddly as the stage gradually becomes light a small child is seen sitting up in bed wearing pink pajamas and clutching a photo of a man. She lies on this bed centre stage and remains there for all of Act 1 while the storm thrashes and a huge ship looms behind her in the twilight. Not that there are any acts, happily the whole work runs non-stop for two and a quarter hours. Presumably the child is young Senta who is being put to bed and read a story by her father Daland. I suppose the implication of what follows is Senta dreaming.

This child event passes and doesn't much intrude as neither person says anything and eventually grown up Senta appears from under the bed covers, clever that bit of stagecraft this.

Then the problems start for quite simply some of the singers as just not up to it. Senta, supposedly a fragile young and emotional village girl is rather large and distinctly middle aged. And her voice is rough. Orla Boylan has in the past sung some good things, but hey, who roped her into this production? The rest of the protagonists are adequate and Stuart Skelton's Eric is touching, but he should get down to the gym more often.

However the Dutchman of James Cresswell is pretty wonderful. Rigged out as an 18thcentury gent, [see, he has been sailing for a couple of centuries, get it?] He is a handsome bloke and sings lovely. Not perhaps sexy enough but mysterious in the gloaming. Somehow the very idea of a Dutchman being possible to loose one's heart over is difficult, but perhaps this in just my hang up.

The setis fine and lots of clever ideas such as the factory girls rather than working at a hundred sewing machines are instead busy making tourist souvenirs of ships in bottles. The video work is excellent. I felt quite sea sick with the waves braking over my head. Video has so changed what is done on stage now, mostly for the good, the cinema was bound to creep into opera one day and frankly I am surprised it has taken so long.

The translation by David Pountney is excellent and the diction of the singers clear. Whyhave a textat all if you cant hear what is said? English National Opera sing everything in English and still has sur-titles above the stage. All most excellent. There were bloody battles to get this to happen, I am all for it.

English National Opera is often somewhat wobbly, but when they get it right their productions are winners. This is one of them. Enjoy it if you can.