Houston — The Houston Grand Opera, finally returning to the Hurricane Harvey-ruined Wortham Theater, chose an opera about another homeless wanderer, Wagner’s epic The Flying Dutchman. But unlike the cursed anti-hero of Wagner’s brooding and dark tale, who has to be in exile for seven years, were only in an improvised sort-of theater for one season.
For some odd reason, Wagner’s operas are rife with bizarre settings these days. The set of the recent production of Dutchman in Dallas enclosed the entire stage is what appeared to be a huge metal box. The only good part is that it functioned as a Rudy Vallée-style megaphone and really projected the voices out into the theater.
Here, the set was what looked like a laundry because of the women constantly trying to fold sheets. It was a lovely effect as they tossed them repeatedly in the air but they never seemed to get them folded. The place is supposed to be full of spinning wheels. The women’s chorus sings an entire number in praise of the ladylike art of spinning. But just like there aren't ships, or docks to hold them, there isn’t a spinning wheel in sight either. Still, the women sing about them while sitting at what looks like pedal-driven sewing machines.
The set works better when the action moves on shore but it is hopeless trying to be not one ship, but two. One is an ordinary ship and the other is the cursed Flying Dutchman with its red sails and black masts. The erstwhile chorus first hoists a white sail-like fabric and then later they hoist a red one. But no one believes they were ships, let alone different ones.
Oh well, theater is all about the suspension of reality and you have a challenge here.
Costumes are an odd mix of periods. The Dutchman is in a red raincoat and what looks like either sunglasses or a Wotan-like eye patch. Maybe that is because he has been underwater, and away from the sun, for seven years. Fortunately, the music is glorious from its thrilling start to its ethereal finish.
This opera has a lot of standing around and singing. Director Tomer Zvulun tries to juice it up with a lot of movement—crosses to nowhere in particular and lots on kneeling and. He also tries to give it some visual interest with S. Katy Tucker’s mostly unsuccessful video projections. They put a too obvious face on Wagner’s text. You mention clouds and they suddenly appear. Waves? Here they are. It wouldn’t have been so irritating if it wasn’t so intrusive and ever present, not to mention fuzzy and in muddy black and white occasionally drenched in red. However, a clever, albeit grisly, touch was turning the Dutchman’s crew into bald zombies. Fortunately for Senta, the Dutchman himself remains a mysterious stud.
The creaky plot is relatively simple, if not a little bit silly. Satan cursed the Dutchman for blasphemy and, as punishment, he has to spend seven years in underwater exile. The curse can only be lifted by the faithful love of a virtuous woman, which he has been unable to find in centuries. Fortunately, the storm drives him into Daland's ship and later, his homeport. He and Daland hit it off and the desperate Dutchman immediately offers Daland treasure for the hand of his yet-to-be-seen daughter, Senta. The greedy Daland readily accepts. After all, she is his to sell to anyone he choses, right?
It is a lucky break for her father that Senta is already in love with the Dutchman because of his pathetic story and a picture of him that happens to be on the wall. When Daland arrives with the Dutchman in tow, it is her lucky day. But it is not such a lucky day for her ardent boyfriend, the huntsman Erik. The Dutchman eavesdrops their interaction and assumes that she is already being unfaithful, just minutes after her declaration of eternal love. He leaves, in anger, to go back to his ship and another submerged seven years. But Senta saves the day. She sacrifices herself by jumping into the sea after him and then we see them embracing in heaven.
(Since there is no shore, ocean or ship, she jumps Tosca-like out of a window at the top of the set.)
As the Dutchman, the Polish baritone Andrzej Dobber is a stern presence. His dark voice helps him with his characterization of a cold and totally unlovable man. Senta, portrayed by the American soprano Melody Moore, doesn’t care: she is in love with the legend and its neurotic drive towards suicide. As her avaricious father, the Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson is chilling with his heartless willingness to sell her to such a high bidder. His deep voice is perfect, especially when put in service of his buffoonery.
As her suddenly deserted boyfriend, Erik, played by Eric Cutler, shows off a real leading man tenor voice perfectly suited to Wagner’s demanding music. As the unreliable steersman, HGO Studio Artist tenor Richard Trey Smagur gives Cutler a run for his money in the tenor class.
But the real star of the production is HGO Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers. He leads the score as Wagner intended, in one long act. Summers takes the entire two-and-a-half hours to build this wondrous score from the opening fanfare of doom to the eventual heavenly apotheosis at the end. At the Oct. 27 performance, the orchestra responded with equal intensity and the time seemed to pass by much more quickly than in other productions that are clumsily divided into two acts. In Summer’s capable hands, the music, which is really proto-Wagner, sounds more like the composer at the top of his game. The questionable set aside, this is a terrific production of an early Wagner opera that still remains in the repertoire.