Conlon closes his Ravinia decade with a grand and dramatic “Dutchman”

Sun Aug 16, 2015 at 1:08 pm

By John Y. Lawrence

James Conlon led the CSO in a concert performance of Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman" Saturday night in his final event as music doctor of the Ravinia Festival.
James Conlon led the CSO in a concert performance of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” Saturday night in his final event as music director of the Ravinia Festival.

On Saturday evening, James Conlon conducted the final concert of his 11-year tenure as music director of the Ravinia Festival, leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a concert version of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.

When this event was advertised as being “in concert” they really meant it: there was not a whit of semi-staged business about the production. When the Steersman fell asleep in the first aria of the opera, tenor Matthew Penk didn’t act it, but just walked offstage. When Senta flung herself off the cliff at the opera’s conclusion, Amber Wagner stood still as the orchestra played on. In the beginning of Act III, the same chorus sang both parts of the dialogue between Daland’s sailors and the Dutchman’s ghostly crew, with no attempt to distinguish vocally between the two ensembles. If one wanted a reflection of the story of this opera, one closed one’s eyes and imagined it; this concert was all about the music.

Two of the main cast members approached their roles in this spirit, with a firm focus on musicality rather than drama. Kristinn Sigmundsson sang the part of Daland with a round, hearty tone and shaped his melodic lines with consistent musical intelligence, particularly in his second act aria “Mögst Du, Mein Kind.” But Sigmundsson did little to convey the character of the man. There is comic potential in Daland’s blind avarice, and sentimental potential in the fatherly affection that tempers this avarice, but both were untapped.

Likewise, Simon O’Neill sang Erik in ringing tone and with sensitive phrasing. But there was little ardor in his professions of heartbreak, or horror in his warnings about Satan’s clutches. In Act II, the chorus reminds Senta of Erik’s hot-bloodedness, but this quality was nowhere evident in McNeill’s low-key performance, which made Erik seem a rather stiff fellow.

The opera’s two leads—Greer Grimsley as the Dutchman and Amber Wagner as Senta—sang with far greater investment in their characters. Grimsley’s Dutchman was in a perpetual state of agitation, constantly crying out an eternity’s worth of pent-up torment. With a lesser voice, this would have been grating, but Grimsley has the gift of being able to sing at very high volume and intensity for long stretches of music without his tone ever turning coarse.

The finest performance of the evening by far came from Amber Wagner as Senta. Her staring eyes and the ghoulish delight she imparted while telling the tale of the Dutchman in Senta’s Ballad made it clear that this was a woman possessed. Throughout her duet with Erik, Wagner’s Senta was emotionally distant, her thoughts clearly occupied by her obsession and not by the man in front of her. In her scenes with Grimsley’s Dutchman, she seemed transfixed by the realization of her dream. Wagner truly reflected Senta in all her neurotic complexity.

None of this characterization came at any cost to the quality of musicianship. Each psychological layer had a tonal color appropriate to it. Wagner’s singing was proof that drama need not be about sets, blocking, nor any of the trappings of a stage performance; it can reside entirely in the voice.

Also effective in their smaller roles were Matthew Plenk as the Steersman and Ronnitta Miller as Mary. Plenk’s Steersman was full of tender longing in his opening aria, and Miller’s Mary breathed haughty disapproval at the frivolousness of the female chorus.

Besides Amber Wagner, the other star of the show was the CSO under Conlon’s leadership, and particularly the sterling brass section. Conlon shaped the music in grand paragraphs rather than sentences. There was minimal pinpointing of details, but there was a cohesive flow to each scene. In this performance, the conductor and the CSO didn’t stint on the charm in the Italianate melodic currents in the second act. And they certainly didn’t hesitate to go for the jugular at the moments requiring raw power and sustained tension.

In his closing remarks, Conlon thanked the CSO for all their years of committed music-making, and he joked that like the Dutchman, he too might make a guest appearance every seven years.

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