Der fliegende Holländer

Heinz Fricke
The Washington National Opera Chorus and Orchestra
March 2008
Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Washington D.C.
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
DalandGidon Saks
SentaJennifer Wilson
ErikIan Storey
MaryJanice Meyerson
Der Steuermann DalandsAndreas Conrad
Der HolländerAlan Held
Washington Post

This ‘Dutchman’ Skirts Wagner’s Shoals

Around the opera world, Wagner singing is in bad shape. The current “Tristan und Isolde” at the Metropolitan Opera has already been through two Tristans and two Isoldes in its first two performances. In light of this situation, the news from the Washington National Opera’s new “The Flying Dutchman,” which opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, is positive. Some of the singers demonstrated the problems of Wagner vocalism — such as a tendency to bark — but the two main roles, the Dutchman and Senta, were cast with people who could really sing. Things could be a lot worse.

Stephen Lawless’s production itself has reappeared, like the Dutchman himself, after a term of seven years. It originated at the New York City Opera in September, 2001, when it was overshadowed by world events (its premiere was scheduled for Sept. 11), so it is nice to be able to reappraise it. Dark, with touches of red (for the Dutchman) and yellow (for the villagers’ props), it represents a strange amalgam of realism (in its acting details) and clumsiness whenever Lawless gets too involved in the piece’s symbolism.

Few things could be clumsier than the Dutchman’s first entrance, an egregious waste of a powerful dramatic moment. While the orchestra thundered, he was trundled in suspended from his ship’s stylized rigging (Giles Cadle designed the sets), quasi-crucified with lengths of red rope, under a sign saying “Verdammt” in Gothic script. He hung there lifelessly, looking less like a haunted specter in search of redemption through a woman’s love than a display in a shop window at Barneys.

Fortunately, Alan Held was able to make something of the role, chiefly thanks to a lovely voice. His is not an altogether commanding presence, and his visual impact in his first monologue was further diminished by the decision of the costume designer, Ingeborg Bernerth, to cast him as a kind of Don Giovanni, with a rakishly open shirt that he only later covered in the requisite black coat. (In this production, the ghosts that eventually emerge from his ship are not his seamen, but the many woman who tried, and failed, to redeem him before Senta came along.) But Held justified his growing reputation as a Wagnerian: In a scene that is almost impossible to pull off, he prevailed thanks to legato singing and a refusal to bark.

Although Wagner wanted vocal beauty, many artists act as if the goal were to make sounds as big and loud, and even ugly, as possible. “Dutchman” particularly exposes the fatal flaws of this approach, since it is the closest to a conventional number opera of any Wagner opera in the repertory, and its melodies expose the weakness of a bark in short order.

Ian Storey, for example, recently acclaimed as Tristan at La Scala, was able to make respectable sounds as Erik, Senta’s huntsman suitor, when called on to be big and imposing. But when he tried to sing lyrically, his voice became alarming in its gruff, strained hoarseness. As the Steersman, Andreas Conrad, making his company debut, also pushed his instrument to the brink of actual cracking. And Gidon Saks, playing up the buffo elements of Daland, initially fell into the barking trap as well, though he loosened up to reveal more mellow promise as the evening went on.

By contrast, Jennifer Wilson, as Senta, showed that beautiful singing was her top priority. This “Dutchman” marked a Cinderella WNO debut for Wilson, returning to a stage where she sang in the chorus for six seasons before embarking on what is shaping up to be a very nice international career. The buzz is deserved: If she isn’t completely a knock-your-socks-off singer yet, she is an awfully good one, and she sings with a creamy, lyrical sound rather than trying to impress with the size of her voice. Indeed, I was initially a little worried about her top notes until it emerged that she was simply saving herself for a no-holds-barred conclusion, in which her high notes, if they didn’t have the smoothness of the rest of her voice, sounded reasonably secure, and plenty big.

It was fortunate that she could give some drama to the end, because Lawless made the action deliberately anticlimactic: The villagers, rather than trying to restrain her from her suicidal leap, simply dispersed and left her alone onstage. Indeed, downplaying dramatic climaxes seemed to be this director’s stock in trade. After Senta and the Dutchman’s first encounter, the libretto has them staring raptly at each other — but Lawless had Senta leave the stage and prepare him dinner. When the Hollander sings about finding love at last, he is standing over his meal, giving the impression that the way to his heart is through his stomach — though one wonders, given his undead status, whether he actually eats.

Heinz Fricke and the orchestra gave a perfectly workmanlike reading that felt a little sluggish, with a few opening-night issues of coordinations at entrances. His leisurely tempi, at least, supported the singers — showing an appreciation of the proper order of things, and a recognition of the best part of Saturday’s performance.

Washington Times

‘Dutchman’ finds redemption at WNO

Monday, March 17, 2008

After a long winter’s nap, the Washington National Opera (WNO) made its triumphant spring return to the Kennedy Center’s Opera House with a vocally dazzling presentation of Richard Wagner’s “Der Fliegende Hollander” (“The Flying Dutchman”) on Saturday. Bass-baritone Alan Held, a Washington favorite, appears as the Dutchman, and soprano Jennifer Wilson makes her company debut as Senta, his would-be redemptrix.

“The Flying Dutchman,” arguably the first opera of the composer’s mature period, is based on the legend of a headstrong, prideful sea captain who is cursed by the devil for his ambitions and doomed to sail the tempest-tossed seas in his dreaded ghost ship for eternity.

But even the devil has a heart, apparently. The Dutchman (we are never told his name) gets an opportunity to go ashore briefly every seven years. If he can find a woman who loves him enough to share his fate, both he and she will achieve everlasting redemption.

Played against a simple, surprisingly successful modernist set imported from the New York City Opera and directed boldly and well by Stephen Lawless, this WNO production is notable not only for the nearly flawless singing of its principals but for first-rate chorus work as well.

This writer recalls interviewing Mr. Held for a Reston community paper in the late 1980s when he was an up-and-coming singer working with the Wolf Trap Opera. He emphasized his commitment to evolving into a “helden-baritone,” a heroic baritone capable of expressing Wagnerian emotional excess over a huge orchestra.

How brilliantly Mr. Held has achieved his ambition. Now a star at the Met and renowned throughout the world for his command of Wagnerian roles, he never strains for notes and simultaneously expresses power and vulnerability without contradiction. With excellent diction, finely shaped tones and grand, theatrical gestures, his Dutchman in these performances is definitive.

As Senta, the Dutchman’s noble redemptrix, Miss Wilson, a Fairfax native, is his perfect counterpart. Beginning tentatively — perhaps intentionally as she breaks the jolly mood of Act II’s “Spinning Song” — Miss Wilson gathers the courage and conviction to embrace her fate and follow the Dutchman forever. She expresses this with a clear vocal intensity that foreshadows the power of Brunnhilde’s immolation scene at the Ring Cycle’s conclusion. Her high notes never fail, and her rich reserves of power seem inexhaustible.

In smaller roles, bass-baritone Gidon Saks is blustery and foolish yet oddly endearing as the Norwegian captain Daland, who’s more than happy to marry off daughter Senta to the ghostly Dutchman for a generous helping of the doomed sailor’s treasure. Tenor Ian Storey’s bold, impetuous voice is a bit much for the rather weak character of Erik, Senta’s spurned suitor, but fellow cast members deserve a worthy match here, and he provided it.

Mezzo Janice Meyerson is fine in her brief role as the priggish Mary. Tenor Andreas Conrad has fun with the humorous role of the Steersman, although his lyric tenor seems slightly out of place in an otherwise heavy-duty Wagnerian cast.

The orchestra was at its Romantic best for music director Heinz Fricke. Soundwise, however, the ensemble could have used more strings to balance the heft of Wagner’s intense brass writing — the primary fault, we suspect, of the Opera House’s still-too-small post-renovation orchestra pit.

Brickbats? One of the horns apparently had opening-night jitters, making more than a couple of questionable entrances. Also, the occasional, mysterious materialization of what seemed to be a plywood albatross wing appeared better suited to folding egg whites into angel-food cake batter than symbolizing divine redemption. Losing it would not harm this wonderful production.

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
428 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 426 MByte (flac)
Broadcast (WETA)
A production by Stephen Lawless
Possible dates: 15, 20, 25, 30 Mar 2008; 05 Apr 2008