It is interesting that neither of the 200th anniversaries of Verdi and Wagner have received much attention in Oslo, especially when compared to the frenzy that has been dominating so many concert halls and opera houses all over the world. What is even more interesting is that it has only been the Oslo Philharmonic that has paid any kind of attention to the two composers. First, Verdi’s Requiem last spring and then last Friday, a concert version of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.

Stanislav Shvets © Askonsas Holt
Stanislav Shvets
© Askonsas Holt

The Flying Dutchman is Wagner’s fourth complete opera and the first of his mature works. He got the idea of writing it whilst on a ship from Riga, avoiding creditors. The ship had to take refuge on the southern coast of Norway, and it was also here he set the opera. So it was perhaps only fitting that the Oslo Philharmonic chose this opera for their celebration of Wagner.

The singers were variable at best, but the supporting cast were good throughout, especially Brenden Gunnell’s sweetly sung Steuermann and Ann-Beth Solvang’s wonderfully characterised Mary. Juha Uusitalo’s Dutchman sounded strained from the beginning, lacking the necessary edge to cut through the orchestra. The intonation was off and I wondered more than a few times if he was sick. After intermission it was announced that he was indeed sick and that the role would be sung by the evening’s Daland, Stanislav Shvets. And it was Shvets who made the biggest impression of the evening, not only because of his taking over the title role mid-way through the opera, but also because of his commanding portrayal of Daland.

After intermission, Shvets sang both the roles of the Dutchman and Daland, with Uusitalo coming out only to sing the Dutchman’s two lines in the Act 2 finale. As if taking on both roles in the same performance wasn’t impressive enough, Shvets also sang both roles without a score, and from what I have gathered online, this was his first Dutchman. Both Shvets’ Daland and Act 2 and 3 Dutchman were most impressively sung, and with excellent diction, although there were hints of strain at the Dutchman’s top notes, but given the different tessituras of the two roles, I found it completely forgivable. Orla Boylan, the evening’s Senta, possesses a voice of considerable power, but I found her tone too metallic, verging on shrill, at least to begin with. She did improve in the duet with Erik and even more in the duets with the Dutchman, and her final, deafeningly loud high notes were nothing short of awe-inspiring. Steve Davislim’s Erik was very Italianate, although his voice was just a touch too small for the role and he was the only one singing with a score.

The Flying Dutchman relies a lot on the use of chorus, inhabiting the roles of Dutch and Norwegian sailors, and also local girls. Indeed, the first half of the third act is written almost only for the chorus. For Friday’s performance, the Oslo Philharmonic Chorus (OPC) sang the Norwegian sailors and Senta’s maids. The Dutch sailors were sung by the Norwegian Student Choral Society (NSCS), the male voice choir of the University of Oslo. Generally, the chorus sang well, but there was a noticeable difference in diction and volume between the two choirs; the OPC generally being heard better than the NSCS, although this really to be expected as the OPC have more experience singing over an orchestra.

Conductor Vasily Petrenko’s Dutchman started out fast. His rendition of the overture was taken at a surprisingly fast tempo throughout, especially the opening horn fanfares. The following string passages sounded even more frenzied than usual, even though the tempo could have been taken down a few notches; the runs sounded more like glissandi than separate notes. There was also a big sense of imbalance in the orchestra throughout. The brass were strangely lost, the horns in particular almost disappearing at times. The sheer speed of Petrenko’s reading of the score was unsettling at first, but worked after a while, having had a chance to settle. What Friday’s Dutchman also showed was that the Oslo Concert House is not by any means an ideal space in which to play Wagner. The orchestra as a whole was swallowed by the acoustics, most notably during the decidedly unspectacular Act 1 finale, during which there only seemed to be five instruments on stage, at least if judging by the amount of sound.

The Oslo Philharmonic picking The Flying Dutchman as their tribute to Wagner does make a rather strange sort of patriotic sense, but in the end, what might have been a good choice was overshadowed by uneven singing and playing and a sadly deficient acoustic.

**111