The Flying Dutchman, Grange Park Opera, review: no storm and no ship in this prosaic economy staging

Bryn Terfel in The Flying Dutchman at Grange Park Opera - Marc Brenner
Bryn Terfel in The Flying Dutchman at Grange Park Opera - Marc Brenner

For its last opera of the season, Grange Park Opera has offered just two performances of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) in what is curiously described as a ‘free staging’. Stephen Medcalf is listed as its director, but there are no credits for costumes or sets – wisely, as the costumes are random contemporary, and the Flying Dutchman’s fated ship is represented by a row of portholes which the cast crawl through awkwardly, and a set of stairs that moves on stage, bumping into the excellent chorus (who have their attention focussed on reading from their scores).

Still, much works well when the principals set up their own dynamics of interaction, especially in the confrontations between Bryn Terfel’s stentorian, commanding Dutchman, Rachel Nicholls’s fragile but powerful Senta, and Nicky Spence’s outstanding Erik. In this no-frills telling of the story, Senta’s attraction to the Dutchman, foretold in dreams, is evident from the moment she sees him; there is no doubt that she will abandon her earthbound Erik in order to save him. This being a free (for which read economy) staging, however, they can hardly ascend together to the heavens in the closing tableau, which is instead utterly prosaic.

The question remains as to whether a straight concert performance would have been more effective. However, once we have reconciled ourselves to the fact that there is no sea, no storm, nor even any spinning wheels, we can instead be swept along by Wagner’s impassioned but sometimes crude score: in this early 1843 opera he has not yet escaped from the models of Mendelssohn and Weber, and, in an uncomfortable mixture, places formal set-piece ballads alongside his great orchestral soundscapes.

These are driven energetically by one of the most experienced of Wagner conductors, Anthony Negus, who cannot derive quite the same sophistication from the orchestra here that he does with his forces at Longborough, but certainly achieves momentum, only flagging momentarily towards the end of the first pair of acts, which last two hours. The evening is unbalanced: the long interval then interrupts, creating a very brief denouement in the short third act. Either you should take another brief pause after Act One, or sweep through the entire piece - but then what would become of country-house opera’s essential ritual, the dining interval?

One of the great Dutchmen of our time, Bryn Terfel lacks nothing in authority, though the voice has a harder edge than before, the lines are powerfully squeezed out for maximum impact, and the very top of the range is a stretch. He tends to look up or down, above or below, but rarely at us, except when his saviour Senta appears. Nicky Spence, by contrast, establishes a riveting connection with the audience from his first moments, and the voice is thrillingly firm and free-flowing. His passion for Senta is slightly contradicted by his casual hands-in-pockets stance, but vocally this is tremendous.

It is no disrespect to the emerging Wagnerian credentials of Rachel Nicholls to say that Senta is not quite her part, but she sustains an alarming intensity through it all. Luxury casting brought Peter Rose as her father Daland, almost jokey in his complicity with the Dutchman, Carolyn Dobbin in a fine cameo as Senta’s nurse Mary, and the eloquent Elgan Llyr Thomas as the Steersman who makes the best of it without having much of a ship to steer.

At Grange Park Opera until 16 July. Tickets: 01962 737373; grangeparkopera.co.uk