Let's get to the heart of this right away. How can we "do" Romanticism in an age of cynical post-modern irony? I don't pretend to have the answer, but the question is a hefty one. And Jonathan Kent's new production of The Flying Dutchman at ENO asks it full on. That is not the least reason it is so effective. Whether or not the director intended to do so, he's sunk his teeth into one of the big artistic conundrums of today. It deserves to be brought into the open.
We see Senta first as a child in pink pyjamas, watching the waves through a giant skylight; she craves her father's affection, but he is unable to deliver any and pushes off to sea, leaving her with a book of fairy tales for company. The Dutchman manifests as her imagining, her interior living, if you like, of such a fairy tale - as children do, as we all do if only we remember, casting her father one of its characters, and the Steersman too - who sings his quiet song with rapt nostalgia and falls asleep on the floor, where little Senta covers him tenderly with her duvet. The Dutchman and his ship arrive in a terrific coup-de-theatre, he in full Mr Darcy getup, while the ship wouldn't disgrace Errol Flynn's in The Sea Hawk. And Daland's eagerness to marry the stranger off to his daughter without noticing that said stranger is one of the Undead is all too convincing, because Daland is a stranger to love and values nothing but money.
Stuart Skelton, who is an absolute knockout of a Heldentenor) is no answer. He's a security guard at the factory and there's a hint of violence, born of frustration, in his treatment of her; this big guy doesn't know his own strength. And the other girls pick on her: she's the mildly deranged fat lump in the pink dress (Primark?) who pooh-poohs their sluttishness.
And then the boys come back from sea, they have a piss-up in the factory and they try to gang-rape her. In the song to the Steersman they're egging him on, as their leader, to do the deed. Remember that nostalgic first song he had in act 1? Everything now is inside-out and upside-down. The ghost ship chorus - beamed in by amplification from somewhere offstage (a bit of a pity soundwise) comes to Senta's aid and scares everyone off, but the event pushes her over the edge and, exhausted and already dead within, she breaks a beer bottle and stabs herself with it. She is destroyed by the society in which she lives. Jonathan Kent shows us the death of a soul.
The performances match the power of the staging. The chorus, for a start, is possibly the best I've ever heard at ENO. Orla Boylan's Senta gives everything in her Ballade; there may be issues about pacing and stamina, as in the scene with Erik she began to sound strained and tired, but she summoned reserves of strength for the final scene that made her Senta seem cousin not so much to Isolde (as Wagner later saw her, rewriting the ending post-Tristan - we got the early version at ENO) but Brunnhilde, facing a test of fire instead of water.
Clive Bayley is a magnificent and all too believable Daland; James Creswell as the Dutchman is strong and even-toned, though could maybe use more variety in vocal colour to put across the emotional content, rather than relying too heavily on diction - it's good to hear all the words, but it sometimes distorted the ends of his phrases. Tenor Robert Murray made much of the Steersman aria, which in the grand scheme of the staging acquired extra dramatic significance. But Skelton just about steals the show, despite his character having too little to do. He tweeted the other day that he was off to New York to sing in Die Walkure at very short notice (jumping in for Kaufmann). Lucky Met.
Still, there's big stuff happening at home, and it is happening most of all down the pit. This is Ed Gardner's first Wagner. And from the moment the lights go off and the orchestra plunges into the deep end, we plunge with them. They grab us by the throat and don't let us go for the full 135 minutes (no interval, thanks). The intensity is fabulous, both at the opera's wildest moments and its stillest; the pacing is excellent, passionate, convincing. This seemed the case after that glorious Rosenkavalier a few months back, but now there's no doubt about it: ENO is busy growing a great conductor.
So, I was wondering how we do romanticism in an anti-romantic age. And then I went to see a preview screening of the 3D film of Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, which is being released into cinemas worldwide on 15 May starring Richard Winsor (and very good it is). And there's the prelude. The child prince in bed, in his pyjamas. His mother comes in; he reaches out to her, she backs away. He has a fuzzy swan by way of comforter. He has a nightmare vision of the real swan. And the action commences. Remind you of anything?
Now, I'm not suggesting for one moment that this Dutchman production borrows anything from anybody, but the general atmosphere and logic of the concept is quite prevalent enough for different directors to arrive at the same scenario from contrasting positions. The Flying Dutchman story has plenty in common with that of Swan Lake. The lead character's fantasy world becomes his/her reality, encroaches on actual reality, then destroys him/her.
And today, we can't take it on its own terms, the way Wagner or Tchaikovsky intended; we have to interpret and explain it, because it seems nobody will buy into it otherwise. If a twisted mind through lack of a parent's affection is becoming the dramatic cliche of today (taking over from child abuse, which has been used ad nauseam), there may be a good reason for it.
It's one of those odd things about Romanticism, though, that it involved plenty of cynicism. It was the composers, not the writers, whose senses of humour and awareness of irony sometimes fell flat. The Flying Dutchman is based on a story by Heinrich Heine, whose bite is much fiercer than his eloquent bark. In Heine, the ending of the tale - the suicide of "Mrs Flying Dutchman" - is cynical as hell: the only way a woman can be faithful to this man unto death, he suggests, is if she dies right away. Wagner makes a virtue out of this, but that's not how Heine wrote it. Just as Schumann, setting Heine's songs, avoids the razor edge of this poet's fearsome blade and refuses to laugh or sneer with him, so Wagner goes a stage further and creates his own philosophy out of it - perfumed, feverish and egotistical it may be, but it's alive and well and blazes out of the music. Heine, one suspects, would have been livid.
And Romanticism? Its music still has the strongest appeal to audiences for classical music - not all, of course, but a distinct majority. You want "popular classics"? You get Tchaikovsky. So it is not dead. Twisted, certainly, but defunct, not at all. Most of us still, somewhere, believe in the redemptive power of love - don't we? - and the current craze for vampire movies suggests that maybe we even want to believe, at some level, in the supernatural. But the destruction of a soul through lack of love, and that lack of love, and tenderness, and compassion, and kindness, and idealism, as a comment on our society, is taking hold. Maybe we should take notice.