Der fliegende Holländer

Patrick Summers
San Francisco Symphony Chorus and Orchestra
October 2013
War Memorial Opera House San Francisco
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
DalandKristinn Sigmundsson
SentaLise Lindstrom
ErikIan Storey
MaryErin Johnson
Der Steuermann DalandsA. J. Glueckert
Der HolländerGreer Grimsley

Considered Richard Wagner’s first successful “music drama,” as he preferred to call his operatic compositions, Der fliegende Holländer is also briefer than later works and more accessible for listeners who are new to the groundbreaking composer/librettist. Here appear most aspects of Wagnerian language: the use of leitmotifs, consistent thematic unity of all operatic components, sophisticated musical texture, lush orchestration, and harbingers of extreme chromaticism and rapidly shifting tonal centers. The San Francisco Opera Company’s co-production with Belgium’s Opéra de Wallonie is respectable and satisfying, although not a seminal rendition. The Company has had some casting and directorial adversities this season, but thanks to its robust supporting components – a first-rate chorus closely matched by its masterful orchestra and production crew – San Francisco audiences enjoy a smooth and enjoyable onstage panorama.

It is the fey but steadfast Senta driving this tale of a mythical sea wanderer, damned to eternal life unless he can find the woman whose faith will release him to eternal rest. Senta’s unwavering constancy is sorely tested as the seemingly anxiety-ridden Dutchman unfairly perceives betrayal, leaving her no choice but to commit the ultimate sacrifice so that the evil spell is broken. Here is a situation with no good choices other than the salvation of the otherwise-doomed mariner.

American soprano Lise Lindstrom can craft a sublimely beautiful tone which more than compensates for an occasional weak dynamic in the lower tessitura (perhaps due to an announced respiratory infection). Ms. Lindstrom’s characterization of Senta is conventionally played as a distant, absorbed idealist who effects her removal from a mundane provincial existence with fantasy. Her “Traft ihr das Schiff,” notoriously demanding, is pensively phrased, punctuated with those ethereal tones at this singer’s disposal. Arguably Ms. Lindstrom is a soprano more lyric than dramatic, yet her interesting voice clearly encompasses both.

As the title character, bass/baritone Greer Grimsley distills the essence of the Dutchman with expressive bel canto singing that draws upon a full dynamic range. His voice is an excellent fit for Wagner’s famously difficult melodies; also noted is Mr. Grimsley’s excellent partnering with Ms. Lindstrom of the lovely “Wie aus der Ferne längst vergang’ner Zeiten”. Although Mr. Grimsley is quite experienced with this role, there is some room for improvement to his theatrical ability.

Adler Fellows Ian Storey and Erin Johnson make welcome reappearances. Mr. Storey possesses a supple tenor with sensitive nuance, creating a fine Erik as the spurned suitor. Ms. Johnson is an engaging mezzo-soprano who brings a suitable demeanor to the pragmatic Mary that is good contrast to Senta’s fragile dreaminess. Daland, powered by the gifted bass Kristen Sigmundsson, perhaps draws upon his Icelandic heritage as reflected by his intimate knowledge of the terrible power of the sea. The salty captain also is quite prepared to drive a hard bargain for the hand of his pretty but fragile Senta. Daland’s Steersman is convincingly portrayed by another Adlerian, tenor A.J. Gluecker. Mr. Gluecker brings a mysterious twist to this anomalous character, as though the Steersman is a deeper and more ambiguous entity than he seems at first glance.

The production cast is outstanding despite reported strife between the company’s general director David Gockley and the production’s director/set designer, Petrika Ionesco. With only days to go until performance, Mr. Gockley announced the removal of Mr. Ionesco, apparently due to creative differences. Among other changes, some 40 percent of the Belgian production’s scenic pieces were removed, even though the set had been expanded for the larger San Francisco stage.

Lighting designer Gary Marder, together with projection designer S. Katy Tucker, deftly meet the particular challenges created byHolländer’s invitation for special effects. This is a daunting job well done, especially with the persuasive simulated movement on open sea. Seventeen-year veteran choreographer Lawrence Pech produces excellent period folk dancing. Costume designer Lili Kendaka’s diligent research authenticates the dress of the time.

Principal guest conductor Patrick Summers elicits splendid orchestral sound for a typically gorgeous but arduous Wagnerian score, and there are some superbly performed instrumental solos. Chorus director Ian Robertson seemingly never makes a misstep; the choristers are required to dance while they sing, even when delivering a rigorous counterpoint – which is vastly more formidable than one can imagine.

Senta’s suicide is tragic, but fulfills the promised release of the Dutchman’s curse. Theirs is a spiritual mating, as the story ends with the two largest orbs of the star-sprinkled heavens moving slowly toward each other and at last merging into one bright point.

Claudia K. Nichols

One of the difficulties of producing opera is the planning that must happen long before any rehearsals and performances. The best, or at least the biggest names, sign contracts for work they will do four or five years hence. Casting singer x in role y for a production many years in the future is, at best, a hopeful projection of where the company hopes opera and artist will meet. What happens when the director, seemingly a safer bet as their work is less dependent on anything as precarious as vocal chords, develops in directions the company neither wanted or expected? For San Francisco Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer this discovery led to decisive, if eleventh hour, action: director Petrika Ionesco was sacked a few days before the opening.

Due to the lateness of the move, the director’s name still appeared in the program (along with his “Note from the Director” explaining the conceptual framework for the production), but a note from General Manager David Gockley in the press notes made it clear that Mr. Ionesco’s ideas had proven impractical, unmusical, and undramatic, so he was relieved of duty. The threads of the auteur’s work were taken up by an in-house team headed by Assistant Director Elkhanah Pulitzer, Production Designer S Katy Tucker, and Gockley himself who worked to salvage what they could, engineer some quick fixes, and bring the Dutchman safely into harbor for opening night.

This co-production with Belgium’s Opéra Royal de Wallonie was first seen in Liège in 2011. I can only assume that difficulties really came into focus when attempting to translate the production from the very small stage in Liège to one of the opera world’s largest in the War Memorial Opera House. According to Gockley, the original projections for the production were refined and expanded to suit this amended vision for the work. Overall, the projections were quite beautiful and effective, from the serene blue sky over calm seas to the tempestuous waves and squalls of an oceanic snowstorm. The bloody interior of the Dutchman’s ghost ship made a lurid yet equally strong impression. The opening scene with the sailors battling the elements to steer their vessel to safety was a harrowing stage picture and gripping opener. The San Francisco Opera Men’s Chorus were fine throughout the show, but this stirring moment instantly pulled me into the story. The seams showed most in the patchwork stage direction. The movements of characters and choristers seemed choreographed in some moments and improvised in others. The synchronized swaying of Daland and his crew in Act I, the teasing of Senta in Act II, and the line dancing of the drunk sailors in the last Act all played like rote, stock ideas while the principals appeared to be on their own in solo scenes.

Dark and shiny like onyx, Greer Grimsley’s bass-baritone fit the part of the Dutchman like a glove, though it took time for him to warm it up. In his opening scene, the Dutchman sings of his curse to sail endlessly or until the love of a woman can release him. Grimsley, who has performed the role many times, seemed unsure in his movements during this lengthy, tortured monologue as if trying to hit new staging marks laid out for him in the last rehearsal. He found his groove in Act II and showed the ease and command of an experienced Wagnerian. Bay Area native Lise Lindstrom made her San Francisco Opera debut as Senta, the woman fated to redeem the Dutchman. Stepping into the assignment a few weeks ago when Petra Maria Schnitzer withdrew because of illness, Lindstrom wielded her piercing soprano like a gleaming blade. Her singing may have lacked subtlety at times, but Lindstrom’s voice had presence and heft, easily sailing above the orchestra and filling every inch of the auditorium. Her suitor, Erik, was sung in a willowy, understated manner by tenor Ian Storey. Though clearly holding back vocally, Storey’s restraint had the unexpected effect of making his character more sympathetic and less character-like than is typical for Erik. Daland, another character often portrayed in simplistic terms, emerged as a real person in the hands of Kristinn Sigmundsson. Adler Fellow A.J. Glueckert was excellent in the brief, yet critical role of the Steersman. His Act I song, which reverberates throughout the work, was sung with bright tone and powerful production.

Patrick Summers led the orchestra with finesse and control, never letting the momentum of the turbulent seas or the heated passions overwhelm his pacing for the performance.

Jeffery S. McMillan, 10 November 2013

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Media Type/Label
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128 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 135 MByte (MP3)
A production by Petrika Ionesco