A Haunted and Diabolic Dutchman
Washington National Opera
03/15/2008 - and March 15, 20, 25, 30 - April 2, 5, 7, 10
Richard Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer
Alan Held (The Dutchman), Jennifer Wilson (Senta), Gidon Saks (Daland), Ian Storey (Erik), Janice Meyerson (Mary), Andreas Conrad (Steersman)
Washington National Opera Chorus and Dancers, Washington National Opera Orchestra, Heinz Fricke (Conductor), Steven Gathman (Chorus Master), Matt Ferraro (Choreographer)
Giles Cadle (Set Designer), Ingeborg Bernerth (Costume Designer), Joan Sullivan-Genthe (Lighting Designer), Elsen Associates (Wigs and Makeup), Stephen Lawless (Production)
Washington National Opera opened its 2008 Spring Season with a riveting and brilliantly conceived production of Richard Wagner’s haunted and diabolic music drama Der fliegende Holländer. The eerily atmospheric sets and spectral lighting recalled the horror films of the 1920’s German Expressionists as typified by F. W. Murnau and Robert Wiene. In fact, the entire production had a marked resemblance to Wiene’s 1920 classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari with stark and contrasting uses of color and chiaroscuro upon impressionistic and cartoon like sets. Very “spooky” and very effective!
And, after all, The Der fliegende Holländer is one of the greatest ghost tales in the literature and bears a distinct similarity to Dracula in its quest to find the woman whose true love will bring salvation in death.
Stephen Lawless is daring and innovative in his stage direction, often re-inventing operatic conventions. Most of it works and illumines the drama and the characters. I was intrigued and captivated by his highly individual concepts.
It has often been said that the moment you open the score of Der fliegende Holländer a blast of sea spray hits you in the face. Maestro Heinz Fricke wasted no time in raising a tempest with the opening notes of the overture. He led a spacious, rousing, and often surprisingly subdued reading of the score that let the music speak for itself. And as we all know, Wagner has no trouble at all in speaking for himself.
Alan Held was compelling as the Dutchman, both vocally and dramatically. Imposing in presence with his massive black coat and top hap, he resembled photos of Bram Stoker. Mr. Held has plenty of heft to his voice and a rich and secure top. His understanding of the Dutchman’s character and his depth of portrayal provided strong emotional impact on the audience. He will be in great demand around the world in this role.
Gidon Saks also displayed Wagnerian vocal authority as Captain Daland. He possesses a huge dark voice, which he uses deftly and expressively. He was humorous and convincing in his nuptial contrivances with Senta and the Dutchman, and equally tragic in the final moments of the opera. His duets with the Dutchman and with Senta were vocal highpoints of the evening.
Janice Meyerson was memorable as Mary, a role that can easily go unnoticed. Her imperious bearing and regal voice developed a strong character and presence on the stage in all of her appearances.
Andreas Conrad, in his WNO debut as the Steersman, displayed a lovely, light-lyric tenor voice. A voice that would be ideal as Beppe, or as Nemorino. Unfortunately, he seemed completely miscast as a Wagnerian. His voice began to yodel before he finished the first verse of his opening song, and it completely fell apart on him in the second verse. Fortunately, it is a short role.
Ian Storey, as Senta’s forlorn and rejected suitor Erik, encountered vocal distress all evening. He continually forced his voice, especially on top notes. His scenes with Senta were uncomfortable to hear, causing them to seem interminable.
The WNO Chorus was superb! Thrilling sonically and very tight musically. The men’s chorus was lusty, swaggering, and ghastly as the sailors and spectres. The woman’s chorus was especially impressive in the great Spinning Wheel scene and Senta’s Ballad, employing great usage of vocal colors and shadings. The combined chorus produced enough sound to wake the dead…and they did!
Jennifer Wilson was a complete triumph in her company debut as Senta. A former member of the WNO Chorus, she has a beautifully produced dramatic soprano voice of true Wagnerian quality. Her top is gleaming and pure with great thrust and plenty of ring. She was magnificent vocally in her delivery of the famous ballad, and she only grew in intensity throughout the evening. Wagner makes near impossible demands upon Senta’s part, taking her to sustained outbursts at the top of her range in the final moments of the opera. Ms. Wilson really delivered the goods in these moments and caused a real thrill and sensation in the house.
A case has often been made for Wagner’s attempts at melding elements of Italian Bel Canto into his musical style. Nowhere is it more evident than in the writing of this opera, which often sounds like Donizetti or Von Weber on steroids, especially in the great duets of this score. Wagner would never compose in this style again. In fact, the great “love-death” that concludes Der fliegende Holländer points the way to Tristan und Isolde both in the drama and the musical harmony.
This was an auspicious and exciting opening night and augers well for a successful season. Performances run through April 10.