From here to eternity

By William Dart

Wagner's opera about a sailor doomed to travel the seas forever unless he finds love promises to be a haunting experience. William Dart reports

Orla Boylan as Senta and Jason Howard as the Dutchman.
Orla Boylan as Senta and Jason Howard as the Dutchman.

If you still feel pangs of isolation, living in the land that art historian Eric McCormick once characterised as "last, loneliest and most loyal", then take heart from Matthew Lutton, director of NZ Opera's The Flying Dutchman.

Not yet quite aged 30, Lutton spent his first 26 years in Perth, with no regrets.

"The isolation made it a melting pot of doing what you wanted to do creatively," he says. "I never felt threatened, or the need to compare and compete. It was a great place to develop your mutated imagination."

When he was still in his teens, Lutton founded Perth's ThinIce Theatre Company although he says "company" was a grand word. "It was a name on a piece of paper that enabled us to gather funds to put on shows. But it grew from there."

Lutton's operatic credentials may seem slight (an Elektra for West Australian Opera last year and the experimental Make No Noise for Bavarian State Opera in 2011) but music has always been with him.

"As a teenager I even had this fantasy of being a conductor," he says.

His gateway to opera came through listening rather than live experience, and he points out that "looking for stories that intrigued and excited me alerted me to the potential of this art form".

Lutton is rather fond of the term "expressionist" and it first comes up with his 2011 presentation of Schubert's Winterreise for Melbourne's Malthouse Theatre. What attracted him to the song-cycle was the idea of imagining and dreaming of a winter in Australian suburbia.

"Cabaret singer Paul Capsis found his own voice within Schubert's music," he continues. "Together with a dancer and an actor, we experienced the three parts of the one psyche, trapped in a banal domestic environment."

This director likes music that engages and probes. Not surprisingly, he is happiest when "it allows a character's head to be cracked open and lets us into the inner mind".

Wagner's tormented Dutchman would seem ready-made for such an approach and the Australian is bemused by the fact the composer was a young man when he wrote The Flying Dutchman. "At roughly the same age, I can sense the ego of the work, as opposed to what I feel is the arrogance of the later operas," he laughs. "There's a wide-eyed reckless enthusiasm; it's quite showy and musically you can feel Wagner getting very excited about chromaticism and borrowing this and that from the Italian tradition."

Lutton identifies various themes within The Flying Dutchman and one is the importance of dreaming. "This is an opera full of sleepwalkers. Important things happen after sleeping. Both the Dutchman and Senta have this ability to manifest what they dream about as an event or character; both have an incredible longing for something that they realise, deep down, is not achievable."

The Dutchman, played by Welshman Jason Howard, "doesn't have a lot of faith," says Lutton. "He's incredibly lonely. He's been betrayed so many times that it's created a numb ambivalence. He may feel himself drawn to this woman, but love is not really the issue - he's looking for redemption."

Senta is played by Irish soprano Orla Boylan, who was a soloist in Auckland Festival's War Requiem this year. Lutton sees her character as grounded in reality, unlike the Dutchman who comes from the supernatural.

"She wants to escape," he says. "We wanted to catch this feeling in the production, surrounding her with an environment that's very trivial, very base."

Lutton enjoys working with singers and demands performances that match what might be expected from a straight theatrical actor. "There is a danger when they arrive at the first rehearsal having already learned the whole score. Directing them could easily become very functional, just a matter of telling them where to stand."

These days, however, singers want to delve more deeply into their roles.

"Jason, as the Dutchman, would frequently ask what we might want to say with a certain scene," Lutton explains. "Is it a moment of desperation verging on madness, or incredibly detached and resigned? Sometimes the musical setting of the text dictates how it must be done, but not always. There are a lot of other qualities to be discovered."

He is grateful The Flying Dutchman was conceived by Wagner as a continuous piece of music. "It really feels like a drama. Doing a Mozart opera with all its individual arias and ensembles would be a challenge as the drama is not an integral part of its composition and has to be invented. It can be exciting, but there are also frustrations such as, 'Why is a character saying something three times?' Mozart doesn't worry."

Lutton talks of his close relationship with designer Zoe Atkinson and how they found the right look and flow for The Flying Dutchman.

He says they were both "quite cautious about being literal". In terms of the treatment of the opening shipboard scenes, they went for a feeling of claustrophobia, of being isolated in a vast landscape of ocean.

"It's all about the sailors being stuffed into a very small space, so we created a structure that really does trap the 28 singers," he says. "They can't move a lot and it makes you realise just why they want so much to be back home."

More sinister undercurrents are at work in the celebrated Spinning Chorus. "The women sing along about spinning thread," Lutton says. "They're working so the time will pass more quickly and their men will return. But it's more about sexual frustration than spinning."

Lutton is determined that The Flying Dutchman will be a gripping theatrical experience, in keeping with what contemporary audiences expect.

"Opera is too often thought of as a heritage form. If the great composers were alive today would they want their works to look like something from 150 years ago? Surely all composers feel that they have created the music of the future?"

Doomed to roam

It was an opera, Wagner tells us, that rose out of life itself. The ship-rattling storms experienced on a voyage from Riga to London in 1839 would be immortalised in the opening scene of the composer's first mature opera, The Flying Dutchman.

Wagner's Dutchman is the ultimate Romantic hero, along with Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, Ibsen's Peer Gynt and Byron's Harold. He is doomed to wander and search. Unless he can find a woman to love him when he makes a landing every seven years, his fate is to sail the seas for eternity.

The Dutchman's obsession becomes entangled with that of the young Senta, daughter of the captain, Daland. Erik, the young woman's lover, might protest, but Senta is powerless to resist the doomed seafarer when she meets him in the company of her father. The final act of the opera reveals the bitter price to be paid for a hero's redemption.

Wagner was just 28 when he completed the opera in 1841. Living in Paris, he secured an 1843 premiere in Dresden.

French composer Berlioz was in the audience. He was impressed by "the sombre colouring of the music and the remarkable effects of storm and wind, which are an integrated part of the dramatic character of the work".

These days, when funding is such an issue in the arts, it is significant that Berlioz should praise the far-sightedness of King Frederick August II, whose patronage had "saved a young artist of rare ability".

For Wagner, the opera was the affirmation he needed. Coming out of despairing times, he described how he "began first with the sailors' chorus and the spinning chorus. Everything went like a charm and I jumped for joy at the inner realisation that I was still a composer".

Performance

What: NZ Opera presents The Flying Dutchman
Where and when: Aotea Centre, tonight and October 10 and 12 at 7.30pm; October 8 at 6.30pm

- NZ Herald

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