26 Mar 2013

Flying Dutchman at LA Opera

The Los Angeles Opera company opened its spring season in celebration of Richard Wagner's bicentennial with the composer's The Flying Dutchman, written in 1843.

But what exactly is the flying Dutchman — a ship or a person? The French title of the opera is Le Vaisseau fantôme — The Ghost Ship. Indeed, sailors have it that The Flying Dutchman is a ghostly Dutch Man-of-War lost rounding the Cape of Good Hope, which still appears and disappears mysteriously. Christian mythology describes The Flying Dutchman as a person — as the Wandering Jew of the Ocean, who made a pact with the Devil and must wander eternally until he finds a woman who will love him faithfully.

The wonderful aspect of great tales is that they can be anything and everything to whomever encounters them. Even more wonderful is the fact that they are often transformed into deeper, more meaningful and lasting works by writers and composers of genius. Such is the case of Richard Wagner's musical interpretation, which combines both the nautical and Christian myths.

The story that captivated Wagner's imagination was Heinrich Heine's The Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski in which a young woman in love with the portrait of the flying Dutchman, meets the man when he comes ashore to seek a wife — and pledges to love him forever. When he later doubts her love, and unhappily sets sail again, she throws herself into the sea, after which the Dutchman is redeemed by her sacrifice, and their two souls are united forever.

As James Conlon, Los Angeles' engagingly enthusiastic music director and conductor, told an audience in his customary in brief talk before the opera's performance, Wagner's view of the “Dutchman” as a man in conflict with society, was a reflection of his perception of himself as a revolutionary and a genius neither understood nor appreciated by the crass bourgeois world around him. The Dutchman is a societal outcast, doomed to eternal wandering until he can be saved by a woman's love. Salvation by love that leads to death is a theme that will be central to many of Wagner's succeeding works. Senta, the woman who eventually pledges her love to the Dutchman, is also a social misfit, (as is the cursed Kundry of Parsifal, and wrongly accused Elsa of Lohengrin) In this case, Senta who would rather stare at a ghostly portrait, than sit at a spinning wheel as other “normal” young woman do, is jeered and relentlessly teased by her peers.

Unfortunately, the Company used a production created by Nikolaus Lehnhoff in 2001 for Chicago (presented again in San Francisco in 2004) which veers dramatically from Conlon's view of the work.

Among the major disconnects is the opera's costuming. In this production Senta and the Dutchman — the non conformists are dressed in simple loose cloth garments, whereas the sailors are outfitted in cumbersome silvery space suits. The “normal” young women who according to Wagner's libretto spend their time spinning instead of mooning over a flying Dutchman, here, sit around in black tights, black shoes and black and gold hoop skirts. There are even some who spin themselves on black ballet slippers and manage to look remarkably like Hanukkah dreidels.

There is a story disconnect. In Lehnhoff's version of the last scenes the Dutchman turns his back on Senta believing she does not love him, whereupon the desperate and heartbroken Senta, left alone on stage, dons his black cloak and walks into a gathering mist. Not surprisingly my companion, new to this opera, didn't understand the ending.

And there's a physical — as in too much material — disconnect. Though there are some wonderful lighting effects, this is a dark production — sets and costumes are essentially black and steely gray. Yet most of the opera's action takes place behind a scrim — sometimes two scrims. I have no idea what two scrims do to sound, but if one tries to pierce the visual obscurity using binoculars one sees the performers faces nicely graphed.

Musically, the work fared much better, and featured the thrilling Los Angeles Opera debut of native Angelino, Soprano Julie Makerov, as Senta, when moments before the curtain was to go up, Portuguese soprano Elisabete Matos, felt too ill to perform. Makerov, who had sung the role before, brought a rich, warm voice and dramatic commitment to the role. Baritone Tomas Tomasson, also debuting with the Company offered a lyrical performance as the Dutchman. James Cresswell, whose baritone seems a shade darker than Tomasson's, was a vigorous Daland. Corey Bix did as well as possible in the thankless role of Eric. Tenor Matthew Plenk, in another of the evening's debuts, was moving in the Steersman's tender aria. Ronnita Nicole Miller, a singer I always enjoy, was Senta's nursemaid. The chorus, which plays such a large role in this work, turned in another of its impressive performances. In an unusual final curtain call, Maestro Conlon,who led a taut performance, had the orchestra — horns, violinists and all mount the stage for their share of applause and cheers.

Estelle Gilson

Click here for cast and production information.