The future of Australian music is in good hands. With the Australian Youth Orchestra displaying outstanding maturity, clarity and precision under the baton on Richard Mills, the Victorian Opera’s Flying Dutchman got off to a flying start. They played brilliantly, with deep feeling and insightful understanding all night.

Warwick Fyfe (Daland) and Oskar Hillebrandt (Dutchman) © Jeff Busby
Warwick Fyfe (Daland) and Oskar Hillebrandt (Dutchman)
© Jeff Busby

The Flying Dutchman was a watershed for Wagner. He had arrived in Paris with his newly composed Rienzi believing it would bring him fame and fortune in the city at the centre of contemporary opera, yet Paris was not impressed. He subsequently eked out a struggling existence for three long impoverished years, in the process being osmosed by a musical richness that both enveloped him and transformed his music. Paris was the pivotal moment between his more forgettable earlier works and the immortal operas to come. It was in the midst of this that The Flying Dutchman was composed, in which the seeds of the future are all on show. Leading Wagner musicologist Professor Heath Lees claims that, “thanks to Paris, Wagner became a more German composer”.

Victorian Opera's production is impressive. Both advertised principals had withdrawn from the cast, reportedly “citing vocal difficulties with demanding roles”. They were replaced by veteran Oskar Hillebrandt, who has sung the Dutchman over 400 times, and the promising Lori Phillips, who has sung Wagnerian roles, including Senta, with many North American companies. They were complemented by the lively enthusiasm of the choruses of sailors and spinners from Victorian Opera, whose singing raised the spirits of everyone.

Liane Keegan (Mary) and Lori Phillips (Senta) © Jeff Busby
Liane Keegan (Mary) and Lori Phillips (Senta)
© Jeff Busby

I felt that it was at the entrance of Bradley Daley’s Erik, and his bold confident presence, just as Lori Phillips, ending her mesmerising ballad centrepiece, is emphasising the redemption theme, that the performance really began to sparkle. Daley’s lyrical tenor reached passionately out to her, constantly rebuffed as her fixation on the Dutchman’s picture intensified. It has been suggested that Wagner, either consciously or unconsciously, makes a statement of his own preference for the German over the Italian (then dominant) style of music with Senta’s rejection of Erik and his Italian style in favour of the Dutchman, who has a more Germanic style of singing. After Dutchman Wagner’s course was set. Be that as it may, here the passion of Daley and Phillip’s singing was so strong that the pain of Senta’s rejection of Erik was almost palpable.

While Warwick Fyfe sang well as Daland, his acting was replete with the gestures of a jester (he has recently sung Rigoletto to great acclaim) rather that the gravitas of a sea captain.

There was a touch of magic in the Senta–Dutchman encounter as, standing on opposite sides of the stage, Hillebrandt and Phillips seemed to be touching, even embracing, each other with their voices. The delicate playing of the orchestra heightened the intimacy of the moment, and it was one instance where the lighting enhanced their presence.

© Jeff Busby
© Jeff Busby

In Act III the much-talked-about 3D came into its own. Throughout the opera the 3D effect brought depth and movement to the background, but that was the extent of it – unlike at the recent première of Stockhausen’s Sonntag aus Licht in Cologne, where it drew the audience into the action of the music. The Act began with the 3D effect zooming down onto a jetty with the ships moored on either side, then into the hold of Daland’s ship and, once the ladies in their finery had arrived, to the Dutchman’s huge furled ship and a starry sky. When roused, the crew’s chilling, ghost-like singing and the even more chilling static pulsing blue electricity surrounding masts and crew scared everyone off stage... and caused the lady in front of me to reach for her cardigan.

Again, Erik and Senta’s duet as they faced off on the large stage was brilliant. So too, the final 3D effect of the Dutchman’s ship’s rich red sails unfurling, the ship pulling away, Senta throwing herself into the harbour, the ship sinking, the aurora borealis filling the sky as Senta and the Dutchman were glimpsed ascending (yes, really) and being embraced by the Northern Lights.

This was a rather traditional rendition of the Dutchman with clever twists. The 3D projection made possible some of Wagner‘s more difficult stage directions. It ran for only three nights. It deserved more. It is indeed a credit to the young Victorian Opera company.

****1