The events in English National Opera’s “The Flying Dutchman” sometimes appear to be a product of the heroine’s imagination. Often they aren’t. Often it’s hard to care.
At the beginning of Jonathan Kent’s contemporary staging of Wagner’s opera in London, the heroine Senta (Aoife Checkland) wears pink pajamas and is about nine years old. The action starts around Senta’s bed, as if she’s dreaming it.
Her father Daland (Clive Bayley) is the captain of a rusty tanker. Suddenly another ship rams a hole in the side. Most sailors would leap into a lifeboat. Daland genially shoots the breeze with the captain of the other ship, a Dutchman.
Although this mysterious Dutchman has Victorian sideburns and sings gloomily about redemption through love, Daland offers him Senta in marriage. Odd, that, given her age.
The bride-to-be listens adoringly to the Dutchman’s gnomic utterances. Maybe she studies Schopenhauer at kindergarten. Or maybe she’s just a device for yet another weak production with a concept which doesn’t add up to a hill of beans.
Then we see the adult Senta (soprano Orla Boylan) who works in a factory making ships in bottles. Her father brings her the mysterious Dutchman (James Creswell) and they fall in love.
Later when Senta is singing with the Dutchman, her former boyfriend Erik (Stuart Skelton) gets angry: He’s not able to see whom she’s singing with. It’s funny how Daland could see him earlier, and now Erik can’t. Is Senta mad, or isn’t she?
It’s an important point. Because if everything is a product of Senta’s loopy brainbox, why should we care about her imaginary Dutchman and his lovely sideburns? If it’s all real, why should we try to work out why Erik can’t see him?
The emotional stakes are so low, they’re almost negligible. That’s not what Wagner had in mind for his tale of love, longing and sacrifice.
The ending, in which Senta kills herself by jabbing a broken bottle into her stomach -- an inefficient method even by operatic standards -- produces more titters than tears.
There’s compensation in the singing of James Creswell (The Dutchman), whose voice cuts through the orchestra. Clive Bayley (Daland) and Stuart Skelton (Erik) are both superb.
Orla Boylan has the necessary size of voice for the role of Senta without always the warmth to make it appealing. Edward Gardner conducts his first Wagner opera with exciting crashes and not much subtlety. This “Flying Dutchman” is in a nosedive from the beginning. Rating: **.
David Hare’s 29th play “South Downs” is playing as a double bill with Terence Rattigan’s 1948 work “The Browning Version” at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London.
Hare was commissioned by the Rattigan estate to provide a companion piece to the latter’s one-act masterpiece.
“The Browning Version” tells the story of Andrew Crocker-Harris (Nicholas Farrell), a failed classics master at a prestigious boys’ school. His retirement looks gloomy, the boys ridicule him, and his wife is having an affair. When one of the boys presents him with a farewell copy of Robert Browning’s translation of the “Agamemnon,” his heart breaks.
It’s solidly acted and directed with icy precision by Angus Jackson. Rating: ***.
Hare’s piece is also set in an exclusive school, in 1962. His hero John Blakemore (a remarkable performance from Alex Lawther) is an over-articulate outsider. When a glamorous actress (Anna Chancellor) invites him for tea, she tries to help him gain a wider perspective on his situation.
There’s plenty of atmosphere and not much plot. Next to Rattigan’s structured piece, it feels like a pleasant watercolor hanging beside a dramatic oil painting. Rating: **.
What The Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
“The Flying Dutchman” is in repertory at English National Opera until May 23. http://www.eno.org or +44-20-7845-9300
“South Downs” and “The Browning Version” are at the Harold Pinter Theatre. http://www.atgtickets.com/london or +44-844-871-7615
Today’s Muse highlights include: Manuela Hoelterhoff on architecture, James Pressley on “What Money Can’t Buy,” art auctions, Greg Evans on film and Jeremy Gerard on Broadway.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and lifestyle section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)