Live review: The Flying Dutchman (Sydney Symphony)

David Robertson and a world-class crew bring the Dutchman triumphantly into port.

Sydney Opera House, July 20

In these times of economic gewitter und sturm it seems the world of opera is coming to rely more and more on the concert performance both to generate recordings and for audiences to experience the very finest international soloists. Last year’s excellent Queen of Spades under Vladimir Ashkenazy proved the operatic hit of the Sydney season and so the bar was set high for the SSO’s incoming Chief Conductor David Robertson as he brought Wagner’s musical romance of the high seas to the Sydney Opera House. No need for concern though – this was an evening of unadulterated triumph from start to finish.

To enhance the experience the SOH Concert Hall stage was surmounted by two enormous sails upon which were projected the impressively detailed work of American video artist S Katy Tucker. Strong, dynamic imagery held the attention without ever detracting from the singers. From the start of the overture ominous, treacly water crashed over the brooding face of the Dutchman before slowing for the Senta theme (a revery in passonate reds and golds). At other times we saw black rain, grey seas, blood in the water and a host of other powerful effects, but nearly always those dark, soulful eyes.

The conductor took the overture at quite a lick and the SSO were a little rough and ready at the very start (the horn section never entirely settled), but soon things quietened down allowing us to enjoy a highly dramatic reading of Wagner’s thrilling score. Robertson is a most expressive presence on the podium, shaping the music with compelling physicality and great style. He also proved adept at keeping his orchestral forces in check when accompanying the voices whilst giving them their considerable head at other moments. His pacing throughout was exemplary.

The American bass-baritone Eric Owens was the Dutchman, a singer who proved a runaway success as Alberich in the recent Met Opera Ring Cycle. His is a dark voice – sometimes black as pitch – but he has a warmth as well, allied with fine diction and an impressive stage presence. In short he was a very fine Dutchman indeed who gripped the audience from the very start of Die frist ist um and never let go.

As Senta, Irish soprano Orla Boylan was a perfect match, singing with radiant tone, great warmth, accuracy and passion. Her ample voice, always focussed, was able to crest the most towering of orchestral waves and she flung out some spine-tingling top notes. To experience her long scene with Owens was a privilege and a pleasure.

The rest of the cast contained not a single weak link. The Estonian bass Ain Anger was a magnificent Daland, a true Wagner bass, rich and resonant with some potent bottom notes to boot. His acting was entirely convincing as well. As the Steersman, the Canadian tenor John Tessier was vocally ideal carrying off his lovely ballad with lyrical grace and charm. Britain’s John Daszak made a fine Erik, his sterling heldentenor matching Boylan note for note. Australian mezzo Sally-Anne Russell was an engaging, full-voiced Mary.

As if the superb soloists weren’t riches enough, we also had the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs on tip-top form dynamically placed on either side of the platform and effectively lit to become part of the production when required. The men took the part of both Daland and the Dutchman’s crews (the latter singing through black megaphones) while the women were the wives and girlfriends awaiting their return on shore. With Robertson whipping up a storm, the third act Sailor’s Chorus was a real musical highpoint.

The audience gave what might just be the operatic event of the year the Sydney seal of approval with stamping and whistling loud enough to wake the Dutchman’s spectral crew. If David Robertson’s tenure brings more of the same, then the SOH Concert Hall might just turn out to be the Mecca for those hoping to catch some world-class opera.

The Flying Dutchman plays the Sydney Opera House on July 22

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Live review: The Flying Dutchman (Sydney Symphony)
Eric Owens as the Dutchman is the face that launches this particular ship
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