Dallas — Wagner’s early opera, The Flying Dutchman, docked its phantom ship at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas to open the new season of The Dallas Opera; it will overlap with Bizet’s ever-popular Carmen, which opens Friday.
This production of Dutchman was shipped in from Toronto. It was created for the Canadian Opera by the revisionist director Christopher Alden, who supervised this production, with sets and costumes by Allen Moyer. While the set may be a puzzlement, the voices are amazing. These are among the best Wagnerian singers of our generation.
The creaky story came from Heinrich Heine’s satiric novel The Memoirs of Mister von Schnabelewopski (Aus den Memoiren des Herrn von Schnabelewopski) and uses the theme of redemption through true love and selfless sacrifice. Wagner also said that a difficult sailing from Riga to London in an equally stormy time of his life inspired it. In the transition from satire to romantic opera, some silly bits survived but Wagner overwhelms them with his glorious and unique musical voice, which was still in development at this point in his career. Proto-Wagner, as it were.
Although he wrote several operas before Dutchman, this is the only early opera still in the repertory at Bayreuth’s temple of all things Wagnerian.
As you would expect from Alden, this production features neither ship nor shore. It does nothing to even imply the charming Norwegian fishing village that Wagner requested. A canted box made of what appears to be steel bars serves for both. The only hints of ship-ness are a gigantic steering wheel, which serves as both the ship’s helm and later some kind of factory set of gears. Also, there is a huge square sail on the right side of the stage (as seen by the audience) that is reminiscent of a sheet used as an outdoor projection screen used in a too-windy day.
However odd the box of a set may look, it is gift to the singers in that it serves as a large megaphone (Rudy Vallée’s calling card), projecting and mellowing the singer’s sound. The only other set piece is a large German Expressionist framed woodcut print of, one assumes, the Dutchman.
In Alden’s feverish opium dream of a production, this portrait becomes a major character. It is projected on the front curtain and is always present in the opera itself, moving around the walls and held in the hands of the adoring Senta. Alden expands the role of Mary, Senta’s nurse and companion, implying that Mary had some kind of relationship with the Dutchman sometime in the foggy past.
Senta is in love with the Dutchman, who she has never met, or at least obsessed with the legend of his curse to sail the seas forever; a predicament that can only be lifted by the love of a devoted woman. He gets to come ashore momentarily every seven years to “speed date.”
Senta longs to be that catalyst. Unfortunately, once she meets the Dutchman and offers herself to him, he eavesdrops on an impassioned conversation with her current beau, the local huntsman, Erik. The Dutchman thinks that Senta might already be committed and thus unreliable as his savior. His ship sails without her, but she sacrifices herself at that critical moment and the pair is joined in heavenly love.
Spoiler alert: Senta is supposed to jump in the sea in the ship’s wake so as to die with the Dutchman. But Alden gives her a death that Wagner didn’t intend, which defeats the main point of the opera.
I have heard Greer Grimsley a number of times before over a few decades of his career. He is the leading Wagnerian singer and probably the best Wotan, in Wagner’s Ring, on today’s stage. However, this performance of the Dutchman is the best singing that I have ever heard from the artist. His voice is rich and dark yet brightly focused and perfectly placed right in the mask. It thunders over the orchestra and completely fills the vast acoustics of the Winspear without ever forcing or pushing it beyond its boundaries.
As the lovelorn Senta, soprano Anja Kampe overlays the character with neurosis. She is not the innocent maiden willing to sacrifice herself for the poor cursed Dutchman. No, what she displays is a woman obsessed with the Romantic Era notion of dying for love. When the imagined Dutchman actually appears in her house, she is pushed into insanity. Vocally, she takes the high notes completely wide open, not tipped over into the head voice as almost all other singers manage to accomplish. While the notes are secure, at least for now, the sound is spread and rough-edged. Perhaps the reason that this is so noticeable is that we are not used to hearing this kind of singing.
Bass-baritone Mark S. Doss is excellent as her greedy father, the sea captain Daland, who eagerly offers her to the Dutchman in exchange for riches. Although he is the same voice type as Grimsley, he sounds completely different; the audience always knows which character is singing.
Heldentenor Jay Hunter Morris gives some real humanity as Senta’s pushed-aside lover. His portrayal of Erik is confused and deeply hurt by Senta’s sudden rejection and events that he can’t really comprehend. He stands out vocally, but also dramatically as a “normal” person in a sea of bizarrerie. Morris has a unique voice for a Wagnerian singer: bright and dark at the same time and capable of the full range of dynamics—so rare these days in any kind of tenor.
The connecting role of the drunkard steersman is portrayed by tenor Andrew Stenson. This role is often given to a comprimario tenor, but in this production, a fine Wagnerian tenor gives the role a voice more in keeping with the rest of the cast.
Alden’s expanded role of Mary is entrusted to mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee, Grimsley’s wife in real life. She is a fine actor, with a glorious real mezzo sound, able to pull off the creation of a role out of whole cloth. Although she doesn’t have much singing, she is frequently onstage, functioning much like a Greek Chorus, silently commenting on and expanding the deeper layers of the plot.
The chorus also has an expanded dramatic role in addition to all of the music that Wagner assigns to them. Chorus master Alexander Rom delivers a completely Wagnerian sound, so different from the sound he gets for other composers. They also are assigned a larger acting role than normal, including some robotic synchronized motions, such as the women performing in the spinning scene. The men roll back and forth on the ship's deck in the opening scene to imply the rolling of the ship in the storm.
There are some atmospheric touches that point to the Holocaust, such as a group of men with shaved heads and in concentration camp-striped costumes under the raked stage with the wooden supports looking like prison bars. In fact, at a critical moment, Grimsley removes his coat to reveal a similar set of prison stripes. (Wagner was famously anti-Semitic.)
Some of Alden’s staging choices are fraught with meaning—if you can figure it out. Some work, some are unintentionally humorous, while others either fall flat or soared over my head, at least. One of the funny ones is the big glob of faux diamond chains that the Dutchman offers to Senta’s father in return for her hand. It looks like he is on his way to buy Manhattan from the Lenape tribe.
On Friday, TDO Music Director Emmanuel Villaume was astonishing in the pit. Having observed him for years, there is a steady upward trend from fine conductor to one of the best of our time. His motions have concentrated (although they were never overdone) and are mostly contained within the parameters of his body. Every motion is meaningful and conveys useful information to the performers, yet his conducting technique feels free and not over-studied. The result is a performance that allows the performers latitude to express themselves within his overall conception.
This Flying Dutchman production is first-class and any opera house in the world would be proud to put it on their stage. We are fortunate to get to experience it right here in our own backyard.