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The Flying Dutchman by OperaUpClose | Review

Opera Up Close is a small company based in the south-west of England which has recently been awarded National Portfolio status by Arts Council England. Its most recent production, an adaptation of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman is touring and I experienced it at Grand Junction, a huge Victorian Gothic church in Little Venice, London.

OperaUpClose - FlyingDutchman. Photo Alex Brenner.
OperaUpClose – FlyingDutchman. Photo credit Alex Brenner.

Musically slightly abridged, with a new English translation by Glyn Maxwell, the orchestration has been imaginatively slimmed down for an orchestra of eight players by Laura Bowler, and it is in fact the orchestra which is by far the most successful and inventive part of this production, and not only because of Bowler’s canniness in choosing instruments such as tuned percussion (often played with a bow), bass clarinet (wonderfully evocative playing here), French horn, flute, violin (the most athletic player I have ever seen), ‘cello, double bass etc. but also because the players are also asked to sing as they play, wear costume and take part in the action. The members of the Manchester Camerata under Timothy Burke are quite superb doing more than justice to what is asked of them. Perhaps the most unusual instrument to be found in the orchestra is the accordion, which is used to bind the sound together as well as for special effects.

Singing is also at a very high level, especially from the Latvian Pauls Putnins as The Mariner. He imbues the role with a world-weariness, sincerity and pain which are very appropriate. The rest of the cast also throw themselves into their roles, physically and vocally. Timothy Dawkins impresses with a gorgeous rich baritone which rings around the building, and Philippa Boyle (Starlight) and Carolyn Holt (Mari and Helm) are equally good. All are obviously trying to enunciate as clearly as is possible, but are defeated by the cavernous acoustics of the building and in fact very few words are heard. If only surtitles had been used… especially as for many of the audience this may well have been their first experience of opera!

The performing area is set lengthwise in the church’s narrow nave, with the orchestra to the left of the audience and forward of one of the acting areas. The rostrum indicating The Mariner’s ship is on the extreme right, meaning that centre stage is the sea and barely used at all! My reserved ‘reviewer’s’ seat was on the extreme left in the front row, one metre from the conductor who was on a raised dais with two very strong lights to illuminate his music which shone not only in my eyes but also in the eyes of everyone around me and in the rows behind, seated on the flat floor. Owing to the fact that we were not raised above the orchestra, this meant that we could see little of the action, wherever it took place! In addition, because we were so close to the orchestra, the singers, powerful as they were, were frequently swamped! If only the orchestra had been either upstage of the acting areas, or behind the audience. If only the audience could have been raked. If only the acting areas had been higher so that the singers could have been seen above the orchestra. If only this church had not been chosen as the venue for this production…

So many opportunities missed here, especially given the community participation in the production, amateur choral groups from various parts of the UK having been recorded and used with great effect in the second part.

Unfortunately, in Lucy Bradley and Michael Betteridge’s production, the narrative is often too hard to follow: there is too little action and too much gazing out to sea, especially with much of the stage area barely used. An opportunity missed! BUT go for the orchestra!!

3 Star Review

Review by John Groves

OperaUpClose and Manchester Camerata present
The Flying Dutchman

From the SS Great Britain in Bristol to a former turbine factory in Liverpool, a radically re-imagined Wagner masterpiece tours to waterside venues

Words by Glyn Maxwell | Orchestration by Laura Bowler in association with Robin Wallington | Directed by Lucy Bradley

Touring, Wednesday 28 June – Sunday 23 July

@OperaUpClose | #OUCDutchman | www.operaupclose.com

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  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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