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Fly fishing

First performed within 20 years of each other in the mid 19th century, The Flying Dutchman and The Pearl Fishers both feature capricious seas, broken vows and longing for deliverance through love or death. Yet in almost every other regard, they are opposites. Seeing them performed in tandem heightens the contrast between their distinct styles. Bizet’s opera presents opera as entertainment, a vehicle for fantasy and erotic possibility. In Wagner’s work, we see opera cast in a different role—the midwife of consciousness.

The elemental forces at work in The Flying Dutchman bring forth visions and emotions from a dream landscape which may be individual or collective. Both approaches stake their claims, just as both these productions vie for our favour. The production of The Flying Dutchman enjoys the advantage of a Wagnerian zeitgeist lending it added dignity. From the moment the impassive face of the Dutchman is plucked from darkness by a shard of white light, an atmosphere of foreboding and menace is established. The muted baying of unseen horns quickens the pulse. John Wegner hardly puts a foot wrong as the Dutchman. Even before he sings a note, his presence affects. He appears for the first time on the empty deck of his ship, cradled by its exposed ribs, brooding. Around him the storm may have subsided, but within his compact frame the howling winds have not abated. A bearded man in a heavy coat and peaked cap, he stands with a Napoleonic bearing. Commanding our attention, he is at once isolated, threatening, tormented.

Equally captivating is Senga’s (Elizabeth Whitehouse) rendition of the Dutchman’s ballad. Not content to spend interminable hours spinning thread, Senga strives to forge her own destiny. Her will to escape is as unyielding as iron, yet her summoning of the Dutchman remains sensuous, infused with delicate precision. The Dutchman’s longing is generic—any woman may save him. Senga’s is particular, and we share her triumph as their destinies intersect with a glance. The entire ensemble pulls its weight. The sailors’ chorus is suitably bouyant and the supporting characters played with unassuming gusto.

Thomas Studebaker’s Erik deserves special mention—a complex creation combining a hunter’s temperament and bulk with a patient tenderness evident in his interaction with Senga. Erik is an intriguing figure until the opera’s dying moments, when a directorial decision has him nonchalantly snap Senga’s neck. This is unfortunate, as it reduces Erik to a stock villain. However nothing should detract from the accomplishment of this committed cast.

Unlike the sombre opening of The Flying Dutchman, The Pearl Fishers begins with a wink and a nudge. The curtain rises to uncover ... an opera set upon which the set of another opera has been constructed. Receding proscenium arches in the manner of picture frames suggest the joke may continue towards a distant vanishing point—are there even more operas contained within this scene?
As the audience settles in, we observe Zurga settling in to watch a performance of the Paris Opera. The opera-within-an-opera device is no mere ornament. By allowing the audience to witness Zurga falling under an opera’s spell, it reminds us that we possess a similar opportunity. Indeed the production’s success is contingent upon the audience accepting the invitation to indulge their imagination. Only by permitting our imagination to merge with the spectacle of the moment can we, like Zurga, be transported to a faraway world of colour and sensual promise. Without this permission we are left looking in

at a 19th-century fantasy through weary contemporary eyes.

The extended scene between Zurga (Michael Lewis) and Leila (Miriam Gordon-Stewart) is spellbinding. Zurga’s confession of his love for Nadir (David Hobson) appears to surprise even himself and his realisation that Leila saved his life years earlier has similar impact. Leila has earlier proven herself to be a woman of substance through her glistening aria in the cavernous temple, the duet with Zurga consolidates her grace and poise.

This production suffers from a tentative portrayal of Nadir, the third member of the menage-a-trois. The moment where Nadir and Leila’s eyes meet in mutual recognition should glow. Instead Nadir is obscured in peripheral shadows. More tellingly, Nadir’s discomfort throws into doubt the possibility of him harbouring affection for Zurga. Wagner’s opera takes place in a state. We are not required to slip through the filters separating us from a defined time and place in the past. For this reason, quite apart from the production’s evenness, access to The Flying Dutchman is immediate and engagement sustained. A strong autumn program, which, for the record, was completed by Bellini’s Norma.

Steve Gome is a freelance writer and actor.



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