Wednesday, May 1, 2013

High on the dark wings of The Flying Dutchman

Soprano Allison Oakes and the chorus in BLO's The Flying Dutchman - Photos: Eric Antoniou

There is so much to praise in the singing, conducting, and design of Boston Lyric Opera's new production of The Flying Dutchman that Wagner fans are sure to flock to it - and leave flying high. Its success only reminds you that it has been far too long since a full-fledged production of Dutchman - or any Wagner for that matter - has docked at the Hub (his staging demands are often beyond our existing facilities, as I've argued before; we need a new opera house).  But honestly, for much of its length, this version is so compelling that you may almost feel the wait has been worth it (and it only runs through this weekend).

I have to say up front, however, that the brilliance of the music and design at BLO is sometimes occluded by directorial decisions that, in a seeming effort to "explain" the opera's psychological mystery, only frustrate its mythic drama. Wagner's libretto (as usual) is built on legend - that of the undead "Flying Dutchman," doomed to sail the seas forever for once invoking, while in a rage, the Devil himself. His only hope of redemption lies in winning the love of a faithful woman - who must love him, of course, even unto death (so you know where this is going). Alas, that archetypal set-up has sparked in director Michael Cavanagh an odd desire to analyze his heroine's psychology in terms that any myth worth its sea salt would leave unspoken. So unfortunately, this production's drama sometimes devolves into case study, which compromises it as a true Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk (or "total artwork"); in the end, it's only about two-thirds of one.

But as they say - two outta three ain't bad! So first the good news: a powerhouse cast; a brilliant abstract set; atmospheric projections; and real Wagnerian majesty (though not, perhaps, grandiosity) down in the pit.  Music director David Angus has made the intriguing decision to showcase the opera in its original, rarely-heard form; it's the work in which Wagner first found his operatic voice, but the composer tinkered with it repeatedly in later years to make it more symphonically epic, and even more "Wagnerian" than it already was. So some Wagnerites may be surprised to discover that the action is set in Scotland (rather than Norway), and some familiar passages have gone missing. For my part, I appreciated the streamlining of the score, and felt that hearing the work as it first appeared was of high critical interest. I was likewise intrigued by Angus's use of period brass; I only wondered at the elimination of the famous "redemption" motif at the finale (but more on that later).

Even those with quibbles regarding some of these decisions would have to admit, I think, that Angus has drawn a muscular, lustrous sound from his players. Which only threw into higher relief the powerful singing on stage. For BLO has assembled a cast of highly accomplished Wagnerians for what feels like Dutchman's Boston debut. Bass Gregory Frank was (unexpectedly) first among equals as the manipulative father of the heroine - his burnished sound came with a relentless forward thrust, and the jaunty, nearly-cruel opacity of his portrayal felt about right for the script's demands. Only a small step behind were soprano Allison Oakes as Senta, the woman willing to give her life to save her beloved, and bass-baritone Alfred Walker as that restless, damned mariner. Both were often riveting; Oakes has the power (and then some) required to cut through a Wagnerian orchestration, and there was a wildness to her top notes that was at times thrilling (no wonder she's heading to the Wagnerian Valhalla of Bayreuth later this year). Walker was more disciplined, and appropriately brooding; to be honest, at times I felt he lacked distinctive color, but his resonance and clarity more than made up for that.

The Dutchman descends from his haunted barque.
There was also remarkable singing in supporting roles - Alan Schneider made a piercingly lyrical cameo of the Steersman, Chad Shelton was subtly engaging as Senta's former suitor, and Anne McMahon Quintero was often moving as her nurse. What's more, the chorus sounded absolutely terrific throughout, and as some of Wagner's best writing in The Flying Dutchman is for the chorus, they sometimes seemed to be stealing the show right out from under its accomplished stars.

This was particularly true given their deployment on John Conklin's evocative, abstract set (perhaps the best we've seen from this distinguished designer in some time). Conklin suggested the grappling of Wagner's two frigates with moving rafts of metallic risers - while the sails of the Dutchman's death ship rose up from behind like a blood-red crucifix. Meanwhile SeƔghan McKay's projections seemed to bring the raging sea right down on our heads (at top). And when the chorus of the dead sang from the masts of the Dutchman's ship, they seemed to dangle from a catwalk high up in the flies of the Schubert - the spookiest moment of all in a compellingly eerie staging.

Given these many high points, it's just too bad that director Michael Cavanagh shifted so much focus to Senta's back story, and a series of invented traumas and daddy-issues (conveyed through dumb shows) which supposedly illuminated the reasons for her self-destruction. To be blunt, Wagner leaves all this out for very good reasons - the main one being that turning Senta into a clinical case history robs her of her mythic and spiritual dimensions. This kind of thing also inevitably undermines any sense of sublimated romance with the Dutchman - which may be why in Walker's portrayal this half-spectre seemed so very alienated. Which also ties into the one real argument I had with conductor David Angus - generally The Flying Dutchman ends with the dead Senta rising toward heaven with her redeemed lover; here, however, Wagner's redemptive motif was missing - as was the redemption itself.  I understood Angus's argument for the cut - you could even argue that it buttressed Cavanagh's irritating interpretation. But perhaps some revisions (particularly those very much in the spirit of the original vision) deserve to be preserved.  Either way, in the end such caveats amount to only quibbles against what will stand as one of BLO's most memorable recent productions.


  1. What night did you see this production? On opening night it was played as Wagner intended, straight without the intermissions he added with the later re-working. All other nights of the run, a single intermission is inserted, not after the first scene which would be logical, but smack in the middle of the second scene, the instant the Dutchman enters and Senta sees him. Instead of having the marvelous effect of their staring transfixed at each other in silence while her father prattles on, yet somehow also dynamically connecting with each other in their own separate reality, it was curtain down, house lights up and that was that. When the next act began, the effect never happened because the director had both of them running all around the stage.

    I loved the cast, thought the men's chorus particularly distinguished, loved the production and the orchestra -- but what were they thinking? Or, were they thinking?

  2. I skipped opening night, my bladder can't handle 3 hours without a break. (I know, TMI, sorry.)

    About where the intermission was inserted: I think they were going for a "cliffhanger" effect - whether this worked I think depends on individual taste. But certainly no clear emotional connection between Senta and the Dutchman was ever established - in fact over and over again the Dutchman was either replaced or "doubled" with her father. I'd argue this was hardly Wagner's intent, so it was curious to see that musically this production was so scrupulously attentive to his original conception down in the pit, while going off on a Freudian tangent up on stage.