The sole complete opera contribution to Wagner’s anniversary in Auckland this year came in the form of New Zealand Opera’s production of Der fliegende Holländer. This was the first staged performance of a Wagner opera in Auckland for over 20 years (though we’ve had a few in concert), and it is a pleasure to report that New Zealand Opera welcomed the master back with a fascinating performance. Australian director Matthew Lutton’s production delighted and intrigued in every scene.

Orla Boylan and Peter Auty © Neil Mackenzie
Orla Boylan and Peter Auty
© Neil Mackenzie

As much as this production could be said to exist in any time period, it had been updated to sometime close to the modern day – costumes were mostly unspecific late 20th-century garb. Rather than spinning, in the second act Senta and her companions work in a clothing factory, dressing mannequins as they sing. The curtain opened to Daland’s “ship”, in this production a claustrophobic cube centre stage, around which was a ghostly world of toppled white furniture and assorted rubble – a stunning stage image. The Dutchman wandered around their tightly packed sleeping forms as he intoned his monologue, an interesting representation of his isolation from the living.

Throughout, there were a number of creative directorial touches that set this production apart in terms of its attention to detail. As the Steersman sings his song, a naked woman appears briefly among the sailors, like a manifestation of their sexual fantasies, before disappearing almost immediately. The Dutchman’s crew were shirtless figures with black faces and long black hair (somewhat reminiscent of Japanese Noh theatre) – they stayed motionless with hands over faces when being mocked but jumped into violent motion to announce that the Dutchman’s time was up. The vast contrast between the busily claustrophobic choral scenes and the very static solo scenes seemed to underline the alienation from society of both the Dutchman and Senta.

Jason Howard made an appropriately enigmatic Dutchman. Perhaps he was somewhat reserved vocally, but his tone was always firm and close study of the text was evident in his word-painting throughout. His was a performance full of subtle stage gestures; the great duet with Senta (for me the emotional heart of this work and production) in particular was riveting in its static concentration. Orla Boylan’s Senta had almost the opposite attributes of Howard – while her voice sounded more serviceable than beautiful she attacked the role with such thrilling intensity that convinced absolutely. The Ballad was a little on the wild side but she gained control in time for a rapt account of the aforementioned duet. As the opera goes on, Senta’s music seems to get higher and higher and Boylan seemed to get louder and louder as it did so – her final outcries really pinning the listener to the back of their seats with their sheer amplitude. A very exciting singer indeed.

The two tenors playing Erik and the Steersman both brought more of an Italianate tone than one would normally expect in Wagner, which was very welcome in each of their set-piece arias. Shaun Dixon in particular has a lovely lyric tenor voice – we will be seeing him in more major roles than this soon, I imagine. And it won’t be easy to forget the image of him in a full-length wedding dress any time soon. Paul Whelan made a bluff Daland, vocally in fine fettle, but really this must be one of the most unsympathetic characters in opera, selling his daughter off to a creepy stranger for a pile of treasure.

The Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus were superb in the first two acts – the discipline to remain still while crammed into the tiny box on stage throughout all of the Dutchman’s monologue and the ensuing duet was amazing. However, the celebrating and taunting of the Dutchman’s crew in the last act as a little awkwardly handled; not all members of this choir are natural stage animals. Vocally, there could be no complaints about their performance. It was a risky move to use a pre-recorded chorus for the Dutchman's crew, but the ghostly mood it created was certainly not out of place.

Wyn Davies conducted the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in a sweeping account of the famous overture, the storm’s violence to the fore, and the tension never flagged from that point on. This is not an indication of the tempi being overly fast; in fact, many were on the slow side, but Davies kept the momentum going at all times even when the orchestra is called upon to be silent. Davies clearly sees the piece as a work of transition between early German romantic opera (the Dutchman–Daland duet brought Weber to mind) and Wagner’s mature masterworks. If the press is to be believed, this is Davies’ first time conducting a full-length Wagner work and it is a direction that one hopes he sticks with, as he brought the musical aspects of the show up to the same high level as the intriguing new production.