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Opera review

Singers shipwrecked by staging in Lyric Opera’s disastrous “Dutchman” 

Sun Sep 24, 2023 at 3:19 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Tamara Wilson and Tomasz Konieczny in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman at Lyric Opera. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

One entered the Civic Opera House Saturday night hoping that, similar to the haunted captain of the Flying Dutchman, the curse of the company’s past 13 years may have finally been lifted.

That didn’t happen. The company’s season-opening performance of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman was yet another shining exemplar of the leitmotif of the Anthony Freud era—first-class singing thoroughly undermined by a revisionist and execrable production.

The malefactor in this case is director Christopher Alden. In his last Lyric outing in 2000, Alden staged a Rigoletto that put the title jester in a large chair center stage where he sat and glowered at the audience throughout the opera with little interaction with Gilda or the other characters. That production was so widely reviled that Alden was effectively banned from the company roster for 23 years. Naturally it took Freud to bring back this spectacularly giftless hack.

Following the young Richard Wagner’s success with Rienzi, audiences were initially baffled by Der fliegende Holländer at its 1843 Dresden premiere. As with Rienzi, they expected another Meyebeer-esque epic, yet this strange, dark and brooding Germanic opera took its lineage more from Weber. But The Flying Dutchman shows Wagner finding his own voice in this tale of the sea captain cursed to wander the earth, coming ashore every seven years in a search to find a woman that will be faithful to him and relieve his torment. 

Im addition to Wagner’s use of musical leitmotivs for his characters (in somewhat embryonic form), Dutchman offers Wagner’s finest overture, rousing choruses for the sailors, and glorious set pieces for the principal singers.

Saturday night’s performance began well with superb singing and a striking unit set that evocatively depictedthe deck of Daland’s vessel. Things begin to go seriously awry in Act 2. Instead of happy young girls working at their spinning wheels, the women’s chorus are unsmiling, proletarians in peasant scarves who move their arms in automaton-like, chopping motions (and not very well coordinated). Senta spends most of her time with her back to the audience staring at a Munch-like portrait of the Dutchman. All the male principals wear dark eye makeup like silent-film villains.

Alden’s artistic arrogance is on pretentious display in his “Director’s note” (always an ominous sign) where he has the audacity to wrap himself in the flag of a crusader against anti-Semitism. Alden says his misbegotten staging reflects “my desire to confront head-on the unholy connection between Wagner’s art and the spectres of Fascism and Antisemitism.” Right. That few audience members would get that without reading the note tells you how successful is this inspiration. If you prefer Wagner’s version of The Flying Dutchman you’re probably on the side of the forces of darkness and maybe even a Republican.

Alden’s patented shtick is to take all the humanity and naturalness out of every opera he touches. So characters constantly face walls or away from the audience, emotions are either absent or exaggerated and parodied. Characters become quasi-zombies (like Senta) or caricatures like Erik her suitor, who is depicted here as a cringing neurotic, menacing himself and others with a long hunting rifle.

The director’s other brainstorm is to elevate minor roles into annoying omnipresent figures silently doing ridiculous things that detract from the principals. So the Steersman instead of disappearing after his opening aria, remains onstage as Daland’s confidante throughout the first act. The tiny role of Mary, who has told Senta of the Dutchman tale, is elevated into a constant irritating and unhinged presence—either hugging or brandishing the Dutchman’s portrait, or taking it off the wall and putting it back on a different wall over and over again. Will you please just get off the stage and go get a job at The Great Frame Up?

Alden saves his worst conceits for the final act. Unlike Wagner’s opera, as Alden’s says of his redo, “Our Senta is a rebel against her closed community identifying with the plight of the outcast.” Of course this is manufactured rubbish and has nothing to do with the actual opera or Senta’s character motivation as envisioned by the composer. So instead of Senta’s sacrificial suicide and a concluding vision of her and the Dutchman transfigured in death, Psycho Erik merely shoots her with his long gun. What an inspiring coda. Too bad tenor Robert Watson didn’t pull an Alec Baldwin and shoot the director in rehearsal instead.

What a waste of a first-class cast. 

It’s a testament to the artistry of Tomasz Konieczny—last seen here in 2015 as Wozzeck— that he was able to create a compelling portrayal of the haunted Dutchman despite being hindered at nearly every turn by Alden. (When meeting Senta, Alden has Konieczny silently rest his head on the door for long minutes—like Charlie Brown quietly banging his head on the wall—which induced laughter opening night.)

Unlike many a pushed-down baritone in this role, the Polish singer’s voice has true weight and ballast. He put across a powerful and arresting “Die Frist ist um,” balanced deftly with Tamara Wilson’s Senta in Act 2 and rose to the occasion in the final scene, as much as Alden’s idiocy allowed.

Tamara Wilson as Senta and Robert Watson as Erik in The Flying Dutchman. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Wilson’s Senta suffered the most from the godawful staging—clad in unfortunate costumes crowned by a bright orange fright wig and often standing still for minutes on end or staring at a back wall. (Why is it that directors of Alden’s ilk so often treat female characters like space aliens and try to make them campy or grotesque?)

Despite Alden’s worst efforts, Wilson sang magnificently, handling the leaps in her Act 2 Ballad with ease, soaring in her duet with Konieczny and making her final scene a vocally thrilling climax even with Alden’s downbeat revisionism.

Mika Kares was in the same elevated league as Daland, the materialistic sea captain who is only too happy to immediately hand off his daughter Senta to the Dutch stranger in exchange for jewels and riches. Apart from overdoing the bibulous bit at the end of Act I, the Finnish singer—last seen here as the Commendatore in Don Giovanni—brought a sense of fun and a sleek, commodious true bass to the role.

As Erik, Robert Watson made a vocally worthy debut singing with ample tone. Unfortunately,  Alden makes the hunter—supposedly the “normal” guy in this love triangle—into a twitchy sociopath. This Erik appears so deranged that the depressive Dutchman just seems like he’s having a bad day by comparison. 

Ryan Capozzo displayed a vibrant tenor as the Steersman, delivering an ardent account of his Act I sea-faring ode. Too bad Alden undermined the Ryan Center member by making the Steersman a tiresome unwonted presence.

As Mary, mezzo-soprano Melody Wilson made an indifferent company debut with a light voice and muddy diction. Alden did her no favors either turning the benign auntie figure into a clipboard-bearing tyrant who seems more obsessed with the Dutchman’s portrait than Senta.

Allen Moyer’s expressionist unit set was the production’s sole success, a steeply raked long deck for Daland’s ship with fire-lighted depths for the Dutchman sailors underneath. Moyer’s costumes proved more mixed—on target with the noirish gray-green for the captains’ coats and veering to silly for the Dutchman’s striped pajamas garb and retro camp with the Day-Glo green scarves for the village women.

The men of Michael Black’s chorus delivered resounding renditions of the choruses in the final act, mitigated somewhat by the distracting din of Alden’s overdoing the pounding of feet and glasses. The women were equally committed if less polished in their singing–especially in Act 2 with the bizarre semaphore motions they had to keep straight.

Enrique Mazzola’s conducting was the usual mixed bag. The fail-safe Overture was rough-hewn and tepid with oddly muffled brass. (Who buries the brass in Wagner?). Mazzola kept the score moving efficiently through the unbroken two-and-one-half hours, albeit with a characteristic lack of dramatic intensity.

The conductor’s tendency to drag tempos was manifest in Act II with the extended scene between the Dutchman and Senta slowing to a crawl and then having to rush to get back up to speed. The playing of the Lyric Opera Orchestra was largely solid, though with more then the usual opening-night lapses.

The Flying Dutchman runs through October 7.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Posted in Performances


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