Senta’s Story: Der fliegende Holländer at the Kongelige Teater, Copenhagen

Wagner – Der fliegende Holländer

Holländer – Johan Reuter
Senta – Ann Petersen
Erik – Niels Jørgen Riis
Daland – Stephen Milling
Steuermann – Gert Henning-Jensen
Mary – Johanne Bock

Det Kongelige Operakor, Det Kongelige Kapel / Jun Märkl.
Stage director – Jonathan Kent.

Operaen, Store Scene, Copenhagen, Denmark.  Sunday, September 11th, 2016.

On the hoardings of the construction site just outside the Royal Theatre’s other home on Kongens Nytorv there is currently a photography exhibition of seniors who are asked whether they still dream.  The consensus is that one can never be too old to dream.  This is an important tenet of Jonathan Kent’s penetrating and insightful staging of Der fliegende Holländer today revived by Natascha Metherell.  For him, the central character is Senta who we see transforming from a dreamy, bookish young girl (acted by Sofia Alexandra Watts) in Act 1, to a pensive adult woman in the remainder of the opera.  Senta spends her days dreaming of the Holländer – a character, Kent makes clear in an interesting program note, she imagined during the long days her father was away.  Indeed, the Holländer first appears from nowhere emerging from Senta’s bed as if growing out of her dreams.

Ann Petersen, Johan Reuter © Per Morten Abrahamsen
Ann Petersen, Johan Reuter © Per Morten Abrahamsen

We never truly discover who the Holländer is – the boundaries between dreams and reality constantly open to question.  When he enters with Daland in Act 2 we don’t know whether what we see is Senta’s conception of the Holländer, or an opportunist trying to make a deal with Daland.  In the third act, a debauched party sees the Holländer celebrating with the others, taunting Senta and attempting to rape her.  The treatment of the crowd of Senta both here and in the second act is immensely cruel – the ladies mock her as she sings the ballad – and it’s clear that her escape to the world of her dreams makes her a target of scorn.  Kent’s execution of this liminality between dreams and reality is tremendously assured.  Scene changes happen fluently and video (Nina Dunn) is used most imaginatively to illustrate this; the Holländer’s ship appears covered in projections of waves, for a moment we don’t know whether it’s real or simply a projection.  The crowd scenes are very well done but far too often the principals are left just facing the front and barely looking at each other.  There appears to be a dichotomy between the thorough choreographing of the crowd scenes and how the principals seemed to barely relate to each other – but then of course that may in fact be the point.  We do get however, a central performance of raw, almost painful power from Ann Petersen as Senta, a manifestation of immense physical and vocal courage.

Ann Petersen, Niels Jørgen Riis © Per Morten Abrahamsen
Ann Petersen, Niels Jørgen Riis © Per Morten Abrahamsen

Petersen is the owner of a youthful penetrating soprano with significant stage presence.  Yes, the top can be a little chalky at times and there were some phrases in the ballad that weren’t always fully sustained, but the cumulative effect of her performance was overwhelming.  She gave us some quite beautiful, high sustained piano singing with pearly tone in her Act 2 duet with the Holländer.  In the ballad her attack was appropriately wild and she rose to the closing pages with thrilling abandon.  Petersen was completely up to the massive demands placed on Senta and the final scene, where her only escape from being the target of scorn and mockery was suicide, was absolutely devastating to watch.

Johan Reuter, Niels Jørgen Riis, Ann Petersen © Per Morten Abrahamsen
Johan Reuter, Niels Jørgen Riis, Ann Petersen © Per Morten Abrahamsen

One of the qualities I most enjoy in Johan Reuter’s singing is his willingness to always work with, and not against, his instrument.  His Holländer was sung off the text and was intelligently paced throughout.  His complete understanding and command of his instrument give a great deal of pleasure.  The voice was easily produced from the rock solid top to the rich and resonant bottom.  His ‘Frist ist um’ was grippingly sung with the words used with great psychological insight.  Reuter today gave a highly satisfying performance.

Johan Reuter © Per Morten Abrahamsen
Johan Reuter © Per Morten Abrahamsen

I also thoroughly enjoyed Niels Jørgen Riis’ Erik.  He phrased his Act 2 duet with Senta lovingly and with generosity.  The voice was bright, open and well placed although he did have a tendency to lunge at the very top notes rather than integrating them into his beautifully-shaped line.  His diction was also exemplary, his Erik also really sung off the text.  Stephen Milling’s Daland was a tower of strength – big and resonant, especially at the bottom.  The emissions were even and he had a beautifully smooth line.  Johanne Bock sang Mary in a nicely robust and raspy mezzo and Gert Henning-Jensen was luxury casting as a plangent and mellifluous Steuermann.

Ensemble © Per Morten Abrahamsen
Ensemble © Per Morten Abrahamsen

Jun Märkl led a reading that launched immediately with generous force and didn’t let go for the next couple of hours.  This was a vigorous reading with brass ringing out and strings digging deep.  Tempi were nicely impetuous for the most part but Märkl did pull back at times, not entirely successfully, as I found the Act 2 duet between Senta and the Holländer had a tendency to sag somewhat.  The playing of the Royal Orchestra was sensational.  The acoustic of this beautiful theatre is gratefully resonant but what an exceptional band they have to play in it.  The brass make a fabulously big and rich sound and the strings were both light and gossamer as well as big and gutsy when they needed to be.  The woodwind playing also had real personality.  The gentlemen of the Royal Opera Chorus made a tremendous noise in their choruses, the closing pages of Act 1 were a riotous racket.  The ladies were not quite as well blended but they were appropriately scornful of Senta’s ballad as the concept required.

Ann Petersen, Johan Reuter © Per Morten Abrahamsen
Ann Petersen, Johan Reuter © Per Morten Abrahamsen

Musically, this matinee performance today most certainly delivered – it was thrillingly sung and tremendously played.  When one considers that this was a house performance with all of the principals members of the ensemble, it really says a lot for the quality that the Royal Theatre maintains.  It was also given in a deeply insightful and stimulating production, one that had much to say about the nature of those who don’t ‘fit’ into the mould of what conventional society expects.  Indeed, this is a situation that millions of people find themselves in daily and the fact that Senta felt that she had no choice but to take her own life is a severe indictment of the society that she lived in.  This was most certainly a thought-provoking and moving afternoon in the theatre.

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