If you’re looking for a whale of a time, you could do worse than docking at the Regent Theatre for two hours and boarding Melbourne Opera’s The Flying Dutchman. The production is helmed by Director Suzanne Chaundy and the score expertly navigated by Anthony Negus, with the combined talents of these two ensuring clear skies ahead. Ok, that’s enough nautical puns (maybe?). In all seriousness, Melbourne Opera has put together a truly fantastic evening, combining spectacular singers and some innovative stage design to bring The Flying Dutchman to our shores (last one).
The Flying Dutchman, composed by Richard Wagner and first performed in 1843, is a retelling of the legend of the titular ghost ship. As the legend goes, every seven years a doomed Captain returns to shore to find true love and release him from the curse. The set design brought the vessel to life, consisting of two major components, a rotating curved deck structure and a vibrant seascape backdrop. The deck acted as multiple locations including ships, below deck and housing interiors. The changes worked cleanly and effectively, clearly communicating changes in location with only minor adjustments. The backdrop lit the stage in bold blues and deep crimson, careening between hauntingly quiet nights and otherworldly bloodthirst. These two elements complimented each other and created dynamic shifts in the emotions of each scene. Rob Sowinski (Lighting Designer) and Andrew Bailey (Set Designer) should be commended for their fine work. While the backdrop colour was vibrant, there were some lighting effects that didn’t quite have the intended impact. Lightning and storm effects sometimes felt slightly off, the white “lightning” not transcending past simple effects into a realistic flash. Other audience members may not have minded and it didn’t dampen the overall experience, but some slight tweaking on the timings and duration of the lights may give the intended effect. That said, the effect of the Flying Dutchman ship rising from the sea looked phenomenal, immediately intimidating and attention grabbing, some ingeniously simple decisions have spectacular effects. The shifting colour palette of the ship really emphasised the dramatic tension onstage. Some small technical execution issues hamper what was otherwise an expertly crafted design.
The costumes felt mostly consistent across the board, bonnets and dresses aplenty for the women and beanies and sailor outfits for the men. There were no truly outstanding items in the wardrobe, everything blended together in a sea of browns, yellows and greens which gave to ensemble a slightly dreary feel. Senta’s pink dress was a welcome departure, but the colour was slightly muted and didn’t pop under the lights. Some more colour for the leads outfits and some detailing to set them apart would have been a welcome addition. The two captains’ outfits were both impressive, perhaps the best outfits of the night, each costume enhancing the personalities of the performers. The ghost captain in particular managed to feel dishevelled and disgraced while echoing former nobility. Similarly, his ghostly crew appeared onstage as if they had just been dragged ashore in amongst the seaweed. However, with so many ensemble members to costume there were some sailors that stood out as not quite fitting within the desired aesthetic, whether their clothes were too modern or too clean, a select few outfits just missed the mark. This is understandable as there were over 70 costumes required and the majority of them perfectly fit within the context of the production. A few minute missteps in an undertaking that large are almost expected, so costume designer, Harriet Oxley, should be proud of the work done.
Der Holländer (The Dutchman), performed by Darren Jeffery, is a formidable lead. Our first introduction to the Dutchman is as Jeffery drags himself onto the stage, full of rage, self-pity and hope that he will finally escape his eternal damnation. From that first moment, we see the depths of his character as Jeffery avoids falling into a caricature and brings an impressive amount of subtlety and restraint to the role. Vocally, Jeffery is a powerhouse and flexes his skills in particular during the first and third acts of the opera. The moments of passion and high tension are where his imposing presence shines and Wagner’s music seems effortlessly under his control. His counterpart Senta, performed by Lee Abrahmsen, brings a lot of humanity to the piece. Director Chaundy makes particular note of her desire to flesh out the character of Senta and for the most part she succeeds. It is difficult to translate a character that exists within the world view of a very particular mind (Wagner had some questionable views to say the least), but I applaud the attempt to do so. Although never truly being able to extricate the character from some very played out and harmful tropes (women’s roles in society, subservience to men, definition only in relation to those men, etc) it was very refreshing to see so much attention and effort put into modernising the character. Abrahmsen presents a character that is much more independent and has her own desires and abilities, shown through simple acts such as her affinity for painting and her rejection of the societal roles that others attempt to impose upon her. There seemed to be a minor hiccup towards the end of the production and some awkwardness around a knife, but Abrahmsen never flinched and pushed through to the final moments with aplomb. Abrahmsen does a remarkable job communicating the characters journey and her beautiful soprano voice never falters as she navigates this tumultuous voyage.
Rosario La Spina’s Erik lands on the other side of this spectrum where, although sung and performed wonderfully, the character itself feels incredibly outdated and quite unlikeable. Erik is entitled, self-centred and demanding of affection, accusing Senta of leading him on when there has been no indication of any reciprocal feelings. As an audience member, I was quite off put by Erik and unfortunately the story never rejects or resolves his failings. He is part of the world and is implicitly accepted, which is a reflection on Wagner more than anything else. Despite being incredibly unlikeable, it is to La Spina’s credit that he still manages to make the audience love him for his vocal prowess. If you ignore the surtitles and just listen to the music, you can almost overlook the terrible person that he is. Similarly, another terrible, yet unexamined character is Daland, performed by Steven Gallop. Greedy and manipulative, Daland is another character who manipulates those around his for his own gain and yet never shows any remorse or repentance for his actions (which ultimately turn out to be the right thing to do). Daland greed causes his to sell his daughter to a stranger he just met for jewels and somehow this all turns out ok. His daughter loves the man she was sold to and the man loves her and they live together for eternity. Not the usual ending to a story about a man selling his daughter for wealth, but once again Gallop endears himself to the audience with his charismatic and assured performance. Gallop’s portrayal of this miserable character is so confident and braggadocious that it almost glosses over the awful elements of his character. Almost. One of the highlights for the night, Gallop truly shines in every scene he graces with his presence.
Roxane Hislop and Micheal Lapina round out the main cast with featured sections that allow them to show off just enough without distracting from the core characters stories. Lapina in particular has a very heartfelt ending as we follow him up to his engagement to the woman he loves. Although a side character and not central to the plot, his proposal definitely prompted some “aww”’s from the audience.
The ensemble, made up of 70 odd performers, added to scenes through the effective use of stylised movements. Verity Hunt-Ballard and Chaundy put together some interesting patterns and simple dances that enhanced the scenes and built upon the structure of the world that Senta wanted to escape from. Repeated actions, such as the women working at spinning wheels, gave the world a very methodical feel. The women and men all lived very similar lives, entrenched in convention. These actions translated onstage very well, although the execution across the board from the ensemble was sometimes not fully consistent. Some of the women didn’t have as much sharpness when performing the actions and some of the men were looking at their feet while trying to keep up with the dance. Despite only being a small section of the ensemble, it was noticeable when everyone is doing very precise actions and once or two are out of sync. The enthusiasm that the majority of the cast brought to their roles was more than enough to distract from these minor details and the ensemble section had me smiling and laughing as the cast clearly enjoyed themselves on the stage.
As with most operatic works, the thing to come for is the music itself and this was almost unfaultable. The orchestra under Anthony Negus didn’t seem to miss a beat, the opening overture setting off full mast and never relenting until the finale. So much character is evoked by the score, it is impossible to not be filled with excitement as the orchestra swells beneath you. The score is immense, conjuring a storm that the audience is thrown into with only Negus there to steady the ship. Rest assured that although these are troubled waters, you’re in safe hands.
The Flying Dutchman is an epic tale from start to finish, brought to life by a talented production team and dedicated cast. Some slight technical and execution issues keep it from perfection, but Melbourne Opera has presented a fantastic experience and should be ecstatic with the result. If you’re interested in hearing some spectacular music and seeing stunning visuals, the this is an opera not to be missed.
Images: Robin Halls