WNO's Jephtha and The Flying Dutchman
Wales Millennium Centre
1st and 2nd March 2006
One of the main reasons for my visit to Cardiff in March was to hear Handel and Wagner back-to-back. Having been greatly impressed by the superb acoustics of the new building I wanted to hear how it would cope with such a wide range in orchestral forces.
If I was a little disappointed it was more because of the choices made by Donald Nally, who conducted the opening night of Jephtha on 2 March, than anything inherent in the building. Despite the fact that an organ was listed in the programme it was quickly evident that no organ was being used and moreover the persistent use of the harpsichord gave the wrong textural feel to much of the evening. Too often it sounded like Mozart rather than Handel, with little of the bite or acidity which early instruments, tight phrasing and clipped rhythms should bring to the work. Handel deserves better.
Thankfully on stage everything was a fine as it has ever been in this production with Mark Padmore returning again the title role. It is his emotional truth which runs throughout the evening, coupled with the most moving musicality. The other members of his family suffer as he does, but where one feels he - and Hamon - will quickly allow work and politics to overtake their loss, the women will never be the same again.
Fflur Wyn is a gem as Iphis, her light relaxed tone perfect for the youth and innocence of the part, but bringing all the inner agony needed for the last act. I can understand complaints that she has to sing off of the music in as much as the emotion we experience often appears to be at odds with the text but Handel's scoring allows for the complexity of emotion, and Katie Mitchell's production never moves beyond the range of credibility. Iestyn Davies partnered her with great sensitivity as Hamon and their final duet is heart-rending, torn between love and duty. Susan Bickley repeats her fine Storge in a cast with no weaknesses, splendidly supported by the Welsh National Opera Chorus.
The Chorus were equally fine the previous night in the new production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman. David Poutney's setting of the work in space took a little time to get used to but grew more acceptable as its integrity took hold. The intimate scenes between the Dutchman and Senta were most effective with their inability to form any real relationship mirrored in their constant movement and apparent wandering as if lost both physically and emotionally. Bryn Terfel's Dutchman is a truly tortured soul, one who appears to have been let down many, many times before in his search for redemption. He can't bring himself to accept that Senta may actually be the one to bring release. However, the emotion in his characterisation is never allowed to affect the beauty of line or quality of singing. This is the best I have heard from him and promises a great deal after some difficult times with Wotan.
Annalena Persson looks and acts well as Senta but the voice seemed strained by the last act, producing occasional ugly tones. A pity, for much of her characterisation rings very true and she should make a formidable Isolde when she returns to WNO. Gidon Saks is a rock as Daland but Ian Storey's Eric seemed both too old and bloodless for any real sympathy. Mary Lloyd-Davies' Mary and Peter Wedd's Steerman rounded off a secure cast.
Though the chorus sang with gusto their direction was possibly the most curious of the evening. The men were invisible in the opening scene - more Tristan than Dutchman! - and the last act 'party' was the sourest I have ever encountered. They sat looking miserable as sin then turned on the girls for what appeared to be gang-rape. It was tasteless and so far removed from the score as to seem confusing. The final scene with the bodies floating in space worked in terms of the production but there was little sense of the romance inherent in this early work.
Robert Innes Hopkins' screens and gantries work well in terms of the spaces they provide but Jane and Louise Wilson's video projections too often seemed random rather than structured. It would have been interesting to see the production lit but with the projectors off! Carlo Rizzi drove the orchestra with gusto, paying attention to the score's early romantic origins rather than any potential post-Tristan hints within the score.
If both evenings had their Achilles'-heels, this should not deflect from the essential musical and dramatic truths inherent in the stagings. More performances between now and April - see www.wno.org.uk.
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