When I think of Wagnerian opera I think big – big sets, big ideas, and big voices – but in the production of The Flying Dutchman that just opened at Washington National Opera, only the voices were suitably Wagnerian big and robust. Everything else seemed intentionally scaled to say something more intimate and human. So it was the perfect choice to bring Eric Owens into the role of the Dutchman for when I think of this singer what first comes to mind are his solid and honest presence, his dignity, and his humanity. Through his performance, along with several other choices, I found the heart of this opera again.
Take the overture, played wonderfully under the baton of Philippe Auguin, who will also be conducting WNO’s ambitious ‘Ring Cycle’ by Wagner next season. First of all, it’s been my experience that lately in opera productions the overture is used as a dazzling display of choreographed backstory. Admittedly, I am often seduced by such theatrics but it is becoming expected and for opera aficionados it can, I imagine, be downright annoying.
This production left the overture alone and we, the audience, could put our attention on hearing the music. Oh, that stirring call of the horns both summoning and warning, the strings-as- roiling-storm, the woodwinds announcing the breaking light and safety of harbor and home, and all coming together to signify the redemptive love of a woman! Better than any movie-house sneak preview, the music in the hands of WNO’s orchestra readied our restless souls as it eloquently put forth the heart of this story.
Then there was the set by British designer Giles Cadle. I loved the device of the three simple frames-within-frames, narrowing as they went further upstage finally cramming in forced perspective at the height of the steeply raked stage to indicate the humble room in the house of Daland. This duality that is so much part of the opera where the wide open dangerous sea is pitted against the tight-and-prescribed world of the villagers is made visually so clear and the longing for breaking out and free of the impressionable young village girl, Senta. During the overture, the proscenium became the frame of a great sea painting, lit to evoke emotionality and beauty at various times.
How I loved staring at this evocative painted scrim, much as I did Turner’s sea paintings at the Tate Gallery in London. Likewise, the lighting in this production by Joan Sullivan-Genthe seemed to hide and reveal such secrets in transforming the sea to changing vaporized color. She also used light and shadow, especially of the Dutchman, to create scale of the silhouette and balance stage pictures beautifully.
The performances were strong, with Bass-baritone Eric Owens outstanding as the wandering Dutchman, eternally cursed unless redeemed by the love of a faithful woman. The production at Glimmerglass Festival a couple of years ago had in the titled role a sexily tattooed and swaggering kind of Pirates-of-the-Caribbean Dutchman. Though quite a talented singer, Ryan McKinny was not in the same league as Eric Owens, who pulls out of language every consonant to emotionally shape the color and nuance of every vowel. Owens’ Dutchman is a man who has been battered by life and carries with him a body wracked by pain and the unloveability of the damned. He is such a clear performer in his delivery, and not just in his singing. You get every thought, almost every heartbeat.
Owens also conveys great restraint and dignity as he walks into the home of his benefactor Daland dressed in a huge fur and top hat. This was not someone who grovels or physically compells a woman to be with him. It made his quest, to win a wife to barter back his life, even more heartbreaking.
Ain Anger as Captain Daland who promises his daughter to a damned spectral figure is always a tough one for me. He is usually played either brutish or a drunken fool. Anger makes a memorable WNO debut in this role for he plays Anger as a man driven by greed certainly, but also a man who lives so much in a man’s world on the seas, he doesn’t really “land” well or show much sensitivity to his daughter. Anger sang well and conveyed this large-living-and-dreaming character, unused to being kept in small rooms.
There are several WNO debuts in this production and every one of them in good voice opening night so that the show came together. German soprano Christiane Libor sang beautifully. She is a soprano who can definitely shatter crystal chandeliers. I love the delicacy and flexibility of her voice when she holds those pianissimo notes until the longing reels out throughout the hall like gossamer threads.
Jay Hunter Morris as Erik, Senta’s fiancé, also makes his WNO in this opera. I got to hear this American tenor up in Glimmerglass. I was struck by how he, too, brought out the humanity of his character, watching his dream of his fiancé crumble as her obsession for saving the life of the idol she has made up in her imagination takes hold. Desperately, he tries to rescue her and bring her back to the life they might know together, but in vain. His tenor voice carried all these hopes and pain. Michael Brandenburg has a brief cameo appearance as a steersman and his singing was very credible.
THE FLYING DUTCHMAN
March 7 – 21
Washington National Opera
at The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
2 hours, 20 minutes with no intermission
Tickets or call 202 467 4600
Stephen Lawless, the stage director, has made some bold choices, chiefly his depiction of the dramatic entrance of Owen’s Dutchman, hanging from the ship’s rigging with his arms akimbo in a kind of gory crucifixion made hellish by being bathed in bright blood red. Lawless also kept a big rectangle table, the same as the great cottage industry sewing table the girls had used, as a great barrier that stood between the girl Senta and Owens. This heightened both the restraint and the tension between them.
The men’s chorus was given just enough to do by choreographer Eric Ferraro to convey the ho-heave-ho effect needed in the first rousing men’s chorus. The women’s sewing-and-spinning song was delightful. The singing was terrific.
Nothing spoiled the balance and spare beauty of this work.
The Flying Dutchman . Music and Libretto by Richard Wagner . Directed by Stephen Lawless . Conducted by Philippe Auguin, Eric Weimer (March 19, 21) . Featuring Ain Anger, Michael Brandenburg, Eric Owens, Dana Beth Miller, Christiane Libor, and Jay Hunter Morris. Set Designer: Giles Cadle. Costume Designer: Ingeborg Bernerth. Lighting Designer: Joan Sullivan-Genthe. Produced by Washington National Opera. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.
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