Tuesday 25 October 2016

WAGNER'S THE FLYING DUTCHMAN / Richard Wagner Society (Singapore) et al / Review

Richard Wagner Society (Singapore)
& OperaViva Limited / Finger Players
Victoria Theatre
Sunday (23 October 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 25 October 2016 with the title "Opera passes with flying colours".

A piece of history was made when Singapore's first-ever complete production of a Wagner opera was staged at Victoria Theatre on Sunday evening. The Flying Dutchman was Richard Wagner's fourth opera and his first hit. Running just over two hours and without too complicated a plot, it made an ideal choice for a maiden attempt.

Despite the lack of experience, this newcomer had much to recommend. First-time opera directors Chong Tze Chien and Glen Goei gave the production a Southeast Asian slant, with the introduction of wayang kulit and shadow puppetry to great advantage. As the Singapore International Festival of Music Orchestra conducted by Darrell Ang played the Overture, the back-story of the Dutchman, doomed to wander the Seven Seas for all eternity, was retold by puppetry alone. In the foreground, the maiden Senta (portrayed by Australian soprano Kathleen Parker) was seen obsessing with a Dutchman puppet dug out from a tok dalang's box. Their later meeting would prove pivotal.

To open, Singaporean tenor Jonathan Tay's Steersman set the right atmosphere for the drama to unfold. Act 1 saw the Dutchman (Ukrainian bass-baritone Oleksandr Pushniak) and ship-captain Daland (German bass Andreas Hörl, as Senta's father) strike a deal for Senta's hand in marriage. Both were well matched, the world-wearied and vulnerable Dutchman a foil for the greedy and manipulative Daland.

The star was Parker's Senta, whose dramatic Ballad in Act 2 showed all the qualities of an ideal Wagner soprano. Opposite her, hunter Erik and some-time love interest (Czech tenor Jakub Pustina) was a weaker presence with his straining at higher tones. Mezzo-soprano Candice de Rozario fulfilled her part of Senta's sidekick Mary well. The men's choir from Schola Cantorum, with just eleven singers, was just too small for the sailors' choruses while the women's choir was not always pitch perfect in the Spinning Chorus. 

The stage design could never match those of Bayreuth or major opera houses, so Wong Chee Wai's sets relied effectively on the use of shadows and silhouettes, with a skeletal ship's hull with steps and runway being the mainstay. A kampong on stilts, spinning wheels and the simulation of waves, projected as shadows under Lim Woan Wen's evocative lighting, were also atmospheric touches.

Max Tan and Yuan Zhiying's costumes vacillated between Western and Asian, so the extravagant outfits of the Dutchman (bright red) and Daland (black and white) appeared like something out of a sci-fi pirate movie. For a production predominantly cloaked in dark hues, the contrasts were still eye-catching enough.

The final scene when Senta abandons the safety of terra firma to unite with the Dutchman, thus providing his redemption, was a poignant one. There was no mention of death, only sacrifice and the course of true love. Ultimately, it was the musical, dramatic values and story-telling that made this production stand out.

There are four more shows on 25, 27, 28 (with an all-local main cast) and 30 October. A brush with Wagner's first outing in Singapore is guaranteed to be a memorable one. 

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