Review: The Flying Dutchman

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There are several things that made the opening night of Hong Kong Opera and LCSD’s The Flying Dutchman a truly four-star show. First – the set. As Wagner’s overture (performed live by the Hong Kong Philharmonic) is introduced, brewing tension with its leitmotifs in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, the opaque screen featuring the ship lifted to reveal a real rocking vessel: this is the sea captain Daland’s ship, and he is forced to anchor ashore due to bad weather. As the night wears on, a second ship hauntingly glides onto the stage, resplendent with scarlet sails and a sculpted maiden at its helm. This is, of course, the Flying Dutchman’s ship. Throughout the three-act opera, the set changed three times, and each transformation was a visual feast for the eyes.

The unequivocally talented lead cast, mostly brought in from international shores, also served to amaze. Kurt Rydl’s Daland boasted a stocky, rich bass that provided apt backing for both the Dutchman’s haunted melodies and Senta’s passionate lilts. Jukka Rasilainen as the Dutchman was in equal parts tormented and hopeful, his baritone efforts not as overpowering as others in the past, but nonetheless stirring. And Tomislav Mužek’s lovelorn Erik deserves a mention as well, for his surprisingly emotional tenor solos, attempting to entice Senta back into his arms.

The show’s scene-stealer, however, had to be Manuela Uhl as Senta. Her voice has a syrupy, elastic quality and her unique vibrato ripples likes waves, undulating ever so softly when Senta is naïve, when Senta is sweet and singing the Dutchman’s ballad, whirling like a sea in tempest when Senta is driven half-mad by her infatuation, and then rising in a splendid tsunami at the finale when Senta devotes herself in life and death to the haunted Dutchman.
The musical performance serves as another standout point, and a perfect example of why the Hong Kong Philharmonic is still the city’s premier orchestra by a long shot. Executing Wagner’s score with precise clarity, the orchestra was led by acclaimed conductor Henrik Schaefer. The musicians moved through Wagner’s overture, score and epic finale like a dream.

The Opera Hong Kong chorus played their roles as sailors and girls with plucky cheer, despite a few tempo and choreography glitches that contrasted slightly with the leads’ extremely polished performances – which is understandable, however, given the fact that each member also has a full-time job outside of the Opera. Another small sticking point is that the Hong Kong Cultural Centre’s auditorium was clearly not built for opera – although some notes teased the hairs on our arms to stand up straight, there was little of that incredible vibration and echo that is so often the highlight of an opera performance.

It was with a tinge of sadness that we left the theatre as well, as Thursday’s performance was one out of a paltry three of The Flying Dutchman’s run. The reality of Hong Kong’s arts scene means that lesser shows (in quality and production) somehow secure a magic week or more of runs, whereas productions such as this come and go, well… like passing ships in the night. We can only hope that things will improve in future for productions of this scale and scope – after all, everyone deserves a bit of Wagner.
Ysabelle Cheung

 

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