REVIEW: The Flying Dutchman (New Zealand Opera)

Senta (Orla Boylan) day dreaming about the legendary Dutchman (Jason Howard). Photo by Neil Mackenzie

Ships in the Night? [by Sharu Delilkan]

Senta (Orla Boylan) day dreaming about  the legendary Dutchman (Jason Howard).  Photo by Neil Mackenzie
Senta (Orla Boylan) day dreaming about the legendary Dutchman (Jason Howard). Photo by Neil Mackenzie

Not having seen a Wagner Opera before I was intrigued to discover what all the fuss was about.

The stage curtain represented an old sailing clipper sail, which gave nothing much away as to what we were about to experience, as we were treated to The Flying Dutchman‘s Overture, which unfortunately did seem a tad protracted.

The visual aspect of the set did not disappoint, with a modern contemporary imagining of Captain Daland’s (Paul Whelan) ship and the surrounding stormy seas. Jon Buswell’s lighting was equally effective, utilising direct lights from below to highlight the performers and cast multiple dramatic shadows on the set.

In keeping with the stunning set the costumes mostly comprising simple, contemporary modern clothing, apart from the legendary Dutchman himself who appeared in a more historical cape-like dark outfit, which for some strange reason made Jason Howard look reminiscent of Al Pacino in the movie Heat!

Following the initial visual “wow factor” of the production designer Zoë Atinkson’s set, I found my attention wandering and realised it might largely be attributed to the form of the set which appeared to be constraining movement around the stage. It was all a bit static for my liking and Matthew Lutton’s directorial choice to have most of the cast sleeping on the stage only added to my own tiredness.

The story in the First Act seemed get off to a fairly sedate start, with a vast amount of time spent establishing that the sailors, like all sailors miss their ‘maidens’ and that they won’t be back in their home port as soon as they would have liked. Then the whole premise of the story is set up in just a short period prior to the interval as a rather tenuous deal struck between Captain Daland and The Dutchman.

To me the audience seemed somewhat subdued in the interval and some overheard comments confirmed that I wasn’t alone in needing a bit more to keep me interested. And although the somewhat dubious introduction of some female nudity to represent the sailors’ longing and loneliness certainly made us sit up and take notice, it seemed more like a contrivance to keep us engaged.

Returning for Acts II and III saw a ‘sea change’ in set and performance, with a wider, open raked stage and much more chorus gusto coupled with movement all round the stage. There was a great deal of colour, incredible pace and a whole lot happened within a very short period of time. The female chorus had much more opportunity than their male counterparts to dazzle, shine, sing and flirt, helping establish Senta’s obsession with the ill-fated Dutchman making that storyline much more believable and enjoyable. This liveliness extended to the introduction of the love triangle between Erik The Hunter (Peter Auty), The Dutchman (Jason Howard) and Senta (Orla Boylan), which seemed to provide much amusement and entertainment to the excellent female chorus characters.

As I always admit I don’t have a trained ear when it comes to Opera. However from a layman’s perspective I thoroughly enjoyed the duet between Boylan (Senta) and Auty (Erik). Overall I particularly enjoyed Boylan’s singing which was powerful, rich and emotive, holding her own singing over the full Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra which was in perfect pitch as always. Unfortunately I was a little disappointed with the volume of the illustrious Wendy Doyle’s voice when she was on stage, which got even more difficult to hear when she went upstage.

I must say I thought that product placement was taken a bit too far in Act III when the chorus jumped around on stage Moa Beer in hand as well as Pizza Hut boxes and Bluebird crisp packets – which somewhat cheapened the look of the production making it lack the finesse that we have come to associate with the New Zealand Opera.

Although the singing performances were strong I never really bought into any of the attraction between any of the main characters, which unfortunately accentuated by the lack of chemistry with all the parties within the love triangle. Although Auty (Erik) sang excellently his character seemed far-too-intense almost akin to a whinging bully, while Senta and The Dutchman barely interacted with most of the so-called declarations of love being performed with the latter sitting on a chair with his back to his ‘apparent salvation’. His willingness to literally walk away from his ‘saviour’ at the merest hint of another suitor also didn’t quite gel with me.

Not knowing the story well I wondered if the surtitles might have been a little too directly translated from Richard Wagner’s German, as they seemed at odds with the intense drama being portrayed on stage.

Much has been written about the fact that people either “get Wagner of don’t” and I clearly felt in the minority particularly with the rapturous applause following the final curtain fall. Clearly many of the beautifully turned out audience members thoroughly enjoyed the whole spectacle, but I was left feeling somewhat bewildered about my feelings and impressions of the show in general.

On streaming out of The Aotea Centre the audience of The Flying Dutchman coincided with the Wicked audience leaving The Civic. It made me think that it’s great that a diverse range of big budget shows continue to come to Auckland catering for all Aucklanders. However, I couldn’t help noticing that those leaving Wicked looked happier, more excited and exhilarated, in comparison, with their Saturday evening entertainment.

The Flying Dutchman is presented by New Zealand Opera and Opera Queensland and plays at ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre 8, 10 and 12 October. More information at New Zealand Opera

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Kate Ward-Smythe

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