Friday, March 03, 2006

He's Becoming Quite the Wagnerian

These days, mention Bryn Terfel's name and it is Wagner, not Mozart or Verdi, that first comes to mind. Last year it was Die Walküre at Covent Garden and the BBC Proms, and this winter it is The Flying Dutchman that is keeping the Welshman busy right in his homeland. The Welsh National Opera has mounted for him a new production of Wagner's romantic work, helping to fulfill Terfel's promise to the company that he would sing this taxing role when the company had a suitable house. The critics have all praised Terfel's singing and acting, but have been less kind to David Pountney's production which was first seen in Zurich, and which features projections by video artists Jane and Louise Wilson. Using an approach that vaguely reminds one of The Tristan Project, static close-ups of Mr. Terfel's face are rear-projected throughout the opera on two giant screens.
Anthony Holden in The Observer wrote the following review of this production which, to him, reminds him more of a space opera than anything else.

"Where Wagner Boldly Goes"

The Flying Dutchman Welsh National Opera, Millennium Centre, Cardiff

On the cover of Welsh National Opera's programme for its new version of The Flying Dutchman is a faux-naif nightscape reducing the universe to one-quarter sea, three-quarters brooding sky, dotted with white objects too large to be stars. Observant opera-goers might be forgiven for thinking the (uncredited) artist has got his (or her) proportions wrong, especially in the case of a work so steeped in the maritime. In fact, the picture is a clue to director David Pountney's characteristically bold new take on Wagner's first great meditation on solitude and redemption.

Space, to Pountney, has these days replaced Wagner's sea in the collective imagination as 'an image of the ultimately lonely, desolate place in which someone might be condemned to wander aimlessly'. Such is the plight of the legendary Dutchman, cursed to sail the high seas forever unless he can seize a fleeting chance, once every seven years, to find the love of a faithful woman.

When last he directed this opera, on the huge floating stage at the Bregenz festival in Austria, Pountney had to avoid the temptation to use real ships on the lake as he could not rely on real weather to reflect the shifting moods of Wagner's music. So he internalised the Dutchman's quest, setting it in an abstract house, 'the house of his mind'.

This remains largely true in this new staging, with no less a mind than Bryn Terfel's returning home to Wales, and the company where he began his career, to make his debut as the Dutchman in honour of WNO's 60th birthday. The trouble, as he roams space for two-and-a-half uninterrupted hours, is that so much of Wagner's music is still explicitly, all too audibly, about the sea.

Undeterred, Pountney reinforces his mise-en-scene with video images he came across by chance in Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum - pictures by sisters Jane and Louise Wilson of a crumbling Soviet space training centre in Kazakhstan. He then commissioned them to film extreme, often uncomfortably so, close-ups of Terfel and the girl who might just end his protracted quest.

Projected on to giant screens through which the two interact, these suggest that each may be a figment of the other's imagination, or at least someone other than they seem. Given that the girl is a dreamy adolescent in love with the romantic idea of the Dutchman, and that he sees her purely as a means of escape from his plight, this adds up to an effective variant on the over-familiar use of video images onstage, even if it does neither soloist any cosmetic favours.

It also turns the evening into a collision of archetypes rather than the conventionally torrid human drama. Roaming around a central platform of the girders so loved by this director (and too many others), rarely interacting except to each other's phantom images, rarely even touching for a couple supposedly in love, the two central figures take on dream-like dimensions of fantasy and illusion that cumulatively suit their roles in this otherworldly piece.

And they are majestically performed, Terfel's trademark snarls and gloriously rich baritone more than matched by the glacial beauty and sonorous reach of Swedish soprano Annalena Persson as Senta. Where he maintains a lofty detachment, singing to her projected image (or even his own) more than her corporeal self, she hurls herself towards her new-found destiny with as much physical as vocal commitment.

This involves the summary dumping of her childhood sweetheart, Eric, whose impossible longings and self-righteous indignation are touchingly captured by British tenor Ian Storey. You cannot imagine this wimp ever seeming an adequate son-in-law to Senta's scheming father, Daland, the unscrupulous materialist as powerfully enacted as sung by Israeli bass Gidon Saks.

A sensitive director of singers, with a sure enough sense of theatre to lend central moments a duly celestial stillness, Pountney cannot resist the occasional postmodernist intrusion. Where his own synopsis of the plot has Daland's crew becoming 'increasingly aggressive and provocative', for instance, he decks out a female chorus of all shapes and sizes in tediously unoriginal Barbie doll wigs to become the victims of a drunken gang-rape.

The childish graffito that Senta draws when singing of her love for the Dutchman is, by contrast, a clever conceit reminding us that she is a young woman way out of her depth in this saga, pimped by a greedy father to a lost soul who cares only about her fidelity.

It's an unremittingly bleak scenario, rendered all the bleaker by its transference from the foaming seas of Wagner's imagination to the boundless space of Pountney's. His decision to dispense with an interval, let alone the usual two, bolsters the epic scale of the work without quite turning it into an endurance test. But it also deprives the audience of the chance to work out exactly what's going on with a quick flick through the programme over a welcome drink.

I have said it before - and I'll say it again - it should never be necessary to read the programme to grasp what's happening in any theatre, operatic or otherwise. In this case, however, it sure helps, for all Pountney's protestations that his meaning should be 'completely understandable from what you see in front of you'.

Those who don't understand the sudden descent of spacemen towards the end, or the fibre-optic bulbs being manufactured by the female chorus, might even take the first video-projected images of some derelict institution to be a topical reference to Abu Ghraib. Fear not. Once you grasp that we're all wafting around the Milky Way, rather than being subjected to yet another stage protest about some dire contemporary hellhole, everything will gradually fall into place. Think of space as an ocean and Wagner's surging music will weave its magic. Succumb to Pountney's maverick vision and these world-class performers will help you understand why even early Wagner has a cult following.

With the impressive Carlo Rizzi in the pit, this exemplary ensemble is blessed with distinguished support from WNO's fine chorus and house orchestra, every stitch in Wagner's rich tapestry meticulously revealed, if, at times, underplayed for the sake of the onstage voices.

It may have got off to a slow start on the first night, but this is a reading which is bound to grow in confidence as the show moves from Cardiff to London, Birmingham and Bristol, where Robert Hayward takes over from Terfel and continues with the role in Milton Keynes, Liverpool and Swansea. If the visuals don't grab you, the aurals surely will.

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