Der fliegende Holländer

James Conlon
Los Angeles Opera Chorus and Orchestra
March 2013
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Los Angeles
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
DalandJames Creswell
SentaElisabete Matos
ErikCorey Bix
MaryRonnita Nicole Miller
Der Steuermann DalandsMatthew Plenk
Der HolländerTómas Tómasson

While the term “Eurotrash” gets thrown around more often than it should, it is one that has unfortunately become synonymous with many of the Wagner opera productions that take a non-traditional approach. As opera-goers go, I tend to sympathize with the directors and find that this approach can work fantastically well in bringing Wagner’s logistically impossible scenarios to life. Los Angeles audiences are all too acutely familiar with such controversial productions, having experienced Achim Freyer’s polarizing telling ofThe Ring just a few years ago. In LA Opera’s opening night performance of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman on Saturday, audiences were once again presented with a futuristic telling of one of Wagner’s larger-than-life myths. While the excitement was palpable, heightened by the last-minute indisposition of the leading lady, the results were underwhelming, and in the case of the production itself, incongruous.

Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s futuristic setting was full of busy choreography for the chorus, but little personal connection between the protagonists. In Lehnhoff’s vision, Senta and the Dutchman are set apart not only by who they are, but what they wear. The sailors and Daland all dress alike (imagine Star Wars combined with Monty Python’s Knights of the Holy Grail), with their silver uniforms providing an anachronistic contrast with the Dutchman’s long, black coat and hat. Erik is also set apart with earth-toned, more utilitarian garb. The women of the chorus were outfitted with hoop skirts bearing large, metal rings lining them while Senta modeled a nondescript dress.

The direction was constantly busy for the choruses, whether the women were “spinning” (five dancers were en pointe, endlessly rotating to the second-scene chorus), or the sailors were expanding or contracting a circle, complete with hand gestures or cane props. By contrast, the scenes with Senta and the Dutchman were marked with prolonged staring either at each other or out into the distance. It was an approach where the music was allowed to do the most crucial staging internally. Sure, there were moments of interaction, such as Erik planting a brazen kiss on Senta in the second act, but the most personal and emotionally visceral moments of the piece, such as the meeting of Senta and the Dutchman, were lost to prolonged blankness. There was no tension or pregnant expectation onstage.

The set imitated the oblong form of a ship’s hull, established by two columns of several large, metal “ribs” on either side of the stage, proceeding upstage. A retractable nautical and literal bridge was added when needed, and the Dutchman arrived and departed via a large trefoil that resembled a nuclear radiation warning, but would turn like a propeller on a submarine. A scrim was used almost the entire time. In the second act it had a gigantic silhouette portrait of the Dutchman, but otherwise had a painting of the green sea. Lighting was adjusted to affect opacity, but it lost its effect with its virtual dominance. Like everything else in the production, its over-application tended to overshadow more important aspects.

Unfortunately, the music didn’t fare much better. While there were flashes of beautiful singing, there were, more often than not, unsteady and even unacceptable efforts. Soprano Julie Makerov deserves a pass due to the extremely late nature of her addition to the roster (supposedly twelve minutes before curtain). She had a voice that was at times hair-raising in its intensity, but inconsistent. Icelandic baritone Tómas Tómasson sang the Dutchman while portending a statuesque mystery. Above the staff, his voice was strained, and otherwise wasn’t particularly large or imposing. Bass James Creswell was the most satisfying singer in the cast, singing Daland with a confident air. His resonant bass was jovial and un-wooly. Dramatically, he seemed the most at ease. Corey Bix was overmatched in the role of Erik. While not done any favors by the production, his portrayal was two-dimensional both vocally and dramatically. He was hardly audible over the orchestra far too often. Ronnita Nicole Miller was an appropriately matronly Mary, and Matthew Plenk was a lyrical Steersman.

Maestro James Conlon led a fiercely determined performance, but one that drove singers and orchestra past their technical limits. Balances with the singers onstage were often poor (certainly not helped by the severely raked stage and dry acoustics), and the brass often sounded coarse. The chorus sang with strength and was admirably sufficient, but they have sounded better before. Given the amount of choreography, though, perfect ensemble could hardly be expected. While the uninterrupted, nearly two-and-a-half hour performance seemed a hit with a good portion of the audience, its determinants cannot be overlooked. Lehnhoff’s concept hits on a few of the overall themes of the piece, but it ends up missing the point when, first and foremost, the relationship of Senta and the Dutchman must be the focus. For Wagner opera at its core, the redemptive love of Senta and her destined union with the Dutchman must be the whole point. Otherwise, Wagner, whether set in the present, past, or future, is short-changed.

Submitted by Matthew Richard Martinez on 12th March 2013

This year marks the bicentennial of Richard Wagner’s birth and the 130th anniversary of his death (born 1813 – died 1883). The composer’sFlying Dutchman—premiered in 1843 in Dresden—is Los Angeles Opera’s contribution to the anniversary year. Although Wagner’s Dutchman is cursed—doomed to wander the seas forever in search of true love—not so this Los Angeles production. It is musically and theatrically dazzling.

Wagner wrote Der Fliegende Holländer while in Paris in the early 1840s. He had just finished his grand opera Rienzi—based on a Bulwer-Lytton novel and set in medieval Rome—with its tributes to Halévy and Meyerbeer and its five acts. WhileRienzi represents Wagner’s last look at opera in its traditional form, The Flying Dutchman is a watershed in his artistic production, not to mention the art form as a whole. Here, in contrast to opera’s heretofore highly formulaic structure, the music and its story is a seamless whole, comprised of descriptive musical themes and introducing the “music drama” concept for which Wagner would become renowned. In that spirit, Wagner wanted the entire opera to be performed without intermission (like his later Das Rheingold, the first Ring opera). As music director James Conlon is a very serious Wagnerite and LA Opera a Wagner house—with a Ring cycle just under its belt—this opera (heard the 9th March) was duly performed without a break. Clocking in well over two hours, it was a bit challenging for us the audience, but the performance was so compelling and the music so rich that it worked. Even though the LA Opera Orchestra is usually excellent, never before have I heard them sound quite like this. It was perhaps the best performance I’ve heard from them, Conlon leading an extraordinary performance of the storm-swept music. The strings shimmered; the brass and woodwinds were knock-out. So integral to the success of the evening were they that it was little surprise that the entire orchestra took an unusual curtain call on the stage afterwards.

Icelandic baritone Tómas Tómasson clearly owns the role of the Dutchman, having performed it around the world, aptly proving why opening night. He brought both spectral presence and a commanding voice, slicing through the orchestra and menacing the stage, yet ultimately tender at the end with his beloved Senta. The Dutchman’s curse tried to exert its power on opening night. Portugese soprano Elisabete Matos bowed out at the last minute due to a chest cold, and was replaced with soprano Julie Makerov. A native Californian, Makerov had sung a triumphant Senta with the Canadian Opera Company two years ago, and here made her mark with a soaring, penetrating voice. She sang with intensity and passion, if however with a slight harshness, as was evident in the second act duet with Tómasson. Makerov nevertheless has tremendous presence vocally and on the stage.

Daland—Senta’s avaricious father—was terrifically sung by James Creswell. Regrettably, the important roles of Senta’s suitor Erik and her nurse Mary as sung by Cory Bix and Ronnita Nicole Miller, respectively, lacked interest and heft. On the other hand, Matthew Plenck sang the small but critical role of the Steersman and the opening aria, “Mit Gewitter und Sturm,” with plaintive yet direct beauty. This tenor seems to be making a specialty of Wagner seafaring roles, having performed at the Met as the Sailor in Tristan; in any event, it suits him.

Internationally acclaimed German director Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s high-concept production made for the Chicago Lyric Opera—fluctuating between the Northern Europe of Wagner’s time and the turn of the last century—is stunning. Raimund Bauer’s unit set is dominated by riveted steel ribs on either side that conjure up a ship’s hull and thoughts of another doomed vessel (the Titanic). The silhouette of a huge propeller at the rear of the stage serves as a dramatic entrance for the Dutchman (and lots of dry ice). In the second act, the ribs stood in for columns and beams of Daland’s Nordic home. The production was well staged in Los Angeles by Lenhoff associate Daniel Dooner. The spectacular costumes are by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer. They combine Japanese feudal samurai armor for the sailors and Issey Miyake and German Biedermeier fashions for Senta’s household and the crowds on land. Only the truly strange gold hoop skirts of the spinning maidens (a weird and literal touch here) struck the wrong tone.

Lenhoff’s interpretation is a kaleidoscope of cultures and time periods. The age-old tale—as here retold by Heinrich Heine via Wagner’s own libretto—emphasizes the phantasmagorical world that Dutchman—and Senta—inhabit. For the first time with this opera, Wagner deals with the theme that will essentially dominate the rest of his career: redemption through love. The Dutchman’s ship encounters Daland’s as the latter attempts to sail into home port. In his ship known as the “Flying Dutchman,” the doomed sailor restlessly roves the waves age after age, as he searches for the woman whose love will redeem him from his wanderings. The Dutchman tempts Daland with riches, who readily agrees to marry off his daughter Senta to him. In the second act, at home Senta broods over a portrait of the Dutchman, dreaming of the eternal love that would save him (here Lenhoff smartly employs a stage scrim with an Ed Ruscha-like shadow of the cursed captain looming over the entire scene). In the final sequence, the sailors and the maidens begin the marriage celebrations only to be spooked by the Flying Dutchman crew’s ghostly mocking, while Erik attempts to save Senta from the Dutchman (and herself). He only succeeds in driving her away and towards the Dutchman’s salvation and her own doom. In this production, the closing scene has Senta—rather than jumping off a cliff or ascending with the Dutchman into the heavens—walking calming through the mists—or over the waves—away from the audience. It is a mysterious, open-ended culmination. Lenhoff aptly renders dreamlike this neo-German Expressionist-inflected fantasy as as he explores the dark corners of our desires.

Richard P. Townsend

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A production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff