Der fliegende Holländer

Sebastian Lang-Lessing
Chorus and Orchestra of the Seattle Opera
14 May 2016
McCaw Hall Seattle
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
DalandDaniel Sumegi
SentaWendy Bryn Harmer
ErikNikolai Schukoff
MaryLuretta Bybee
Der Steuermann DalandsColin Ainsworth
Der HolländerGreer Grimsley

“It was a dark and stormy night”: Seattle Opera’s intensely riveting Flying Dutchman explodes the cliches

Though the legend of a seaman doomed to sail forever was already hackneyed by the time he took it up, it was through his idiosyncratic treatment of this material that Richard Wagner first found his authentic voice. “Do you fear a song, a picture?” sings the heroine Senta in her first confrontation with Erik, her hapless suitor. But Wagner was well aware of the dangerous potential art possesses when the goal is no longer escapist entertainment. So is director Christopher Alden, whose production (originally created for Canadian Opera Company two decades ago) mirrors the young composer’s sense of thrilling new horizons beyond routine and convention. With a cast of powerhouse singers, this Dutchman sustains an arc of high-voltage tension, refusing to loosen its grip until the final blackout.

Alden returns to Seattle after a long hiatus. He was last invited here for a Don Giovanni in 1991 that reportedly generated a heated audience backlash. Kudos to general director Aidan Lang for inviting him back: Dutchman, which closes Lang’s second season at the helm, signals a serious commitment to opera and is the finest production the company has staged to date under his watch.

The first bold choice was to present Dutchman seamlessly, as Wagner initially intended, with no intermissions between the three scenes. In the pit, conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing underscored the uninterrupted theatrical tension with driving momentum. Wagner’s uneasy silences seemed especially menacing in the long opening scene, though the level of volume the conductor whipped up resulted in some blurred playing.

Allen Moyer’s unit set was an austere rectangular box dominated on one side by a massive steering wheel and a metal spiral staircase on which the Dutchman’s ‘ascension’ played out in the denouement. The exaggerated tilt of the box recalled the Expressionist atmosphere of films like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. In the opening scene this served handily as a ‘realistic’ representation of Daland’s storm-tossed vessel.

But as the drama proceeded, it suggested different perspectives of a conformist society metaphorically ‘off-kilter’. The space was transformed into a stark factory setting for the women’s spinning work – where Senta is not harmlessly teased but taunted as a misfit. By the final scene, Alden’s staging had made it clear that it’s not just the Dutchman who is spooky: the whole town seems overtaken by the kind of mass delusion you might encounter in a Stephen King novel.

Moyer’s costumes conflated imagery from the 1920s with references to the Holocaust. Beneath his Dracula-like long coat, the Dutchman wore a striped prisoner’s uniform, and his ghostly sailors were seen cramped below decks in images evoking concentration camp victims. In contrast to the bleakness of the set, Anne Militello’s lighting painted a wealth of variable moods and inner states. Her spectacularly imaginative work became a character in its own right, every bit as important as Alden’s direction in interpreting the drama.

Greer Grimsley conveyed the Dutchman’s lacerating self-consciousness of being forever condemned to remain an Outsider. What his enormous bass-baritone lacked in nuance was compensated by a thrillingly reverberant projection of wounded majesty. In a wonderful performance, Rebecca Nash cast aside all cliches of ‘Senta-mentality’ (to steal Nietzsche’s jab). Instead of an airy, dreamy romantic, hers was a strong-willed, obsessive Senta out on a mission, with an awareness of her own alienation that made the character’s immediate gravitation to the Dutchman plausible. Vocally, Nash was capable of spinning gorgeously soft passages in her ballad but easily held her own with Grimsley’s huge voice, never stinting as she delivered richly grained, exciting top notes.

During her first encounter with the Dutchman – possibly the weirdest ‘love duet’ in opera – her Senta faced up to his physical awkwardness in a way that foreshadowed the decisive role she would play in Alden’s feminist staging of the denouement. Luretta Bybee’s Mary, by contrast, was the would-be enforcer of conformity who also senses the danger of art as she observes the effect of the Dutchman’s portrait on Senta.

Daniel Sumegi’s cavernous bass and youngish demeanor made for a livelier-than-usual Daland, though this Senta saw through his crass materialism. The Steersman (Colin Ainsworth) became a much more active participant, returning in the final scene to watch the planned wedding party disintegrate into chaos, to which he contributed unhinged laughter.

One of Alden’s most interventionist choices was to rewrite the character of Erik, sung with passion bordering on mania by the powerful tenor Nikolai Schukoff. Rather than the emblem of ‘ordinary’ love, Erik suffers another form of alienation. For once the irony of Senta’s betrayal of her other betrothed, a dramaturgical point often ignored, hit home with full force.

I’ve never heard the dark, almost monochromatic coloration of Wagner’s score more effectively attuned to the “deeds of music made visible onstage” than in this performance. Lang-Lessing’s forceful conducting and the magnificent contributions of the chorus reinforced this vision of a wounded interloper running aground to seek redemption in a society that itself is sick.

Thomas May | 08 May 2016

The Seattle Times

Seattle Opera’s ‘Flying Dutchman’ unleashes gloriously perfect storm

Seattle Opera’s production of “The Flying Dutchman,” directed by Christopher Alden and starring Greer Grimsley, is a moody but fast-paced charge through Richard Wagner’s first enduring hit.

This may well be the fastest Wagner opera you’ve ever heard.

And that’s not just because “The Flying Dutchman” clocks in at under two and a half hours (without intermission). It’s because the impassioned singers, the clever staging and the imaginative sets are so consistently engaging that Seattle Opera’s performance just speeds by.

From the opening storm-at-sea scene, as the chorus/crew toss and roll themselves from side to side of the tilted set while the orchestra creates the pounding waves and winds, the audience is caught up in the drama and the surging music. Director Christopher Alden makes full use of the ingenious Allen Moyer set, with elements that quickly switch locales from shipboard to shore without any major breaks in the action. Anne Militello’s inventive lighting designs underscore and clarify the story line with jaw-dropping effects.

Wagner created strong, mythical characters for “Dutchman” and gave them plenty of vocal challenges. In Saturday’s opening-night cast, the great strength and experience of the principal singers brought an unmistakable authority to their performances.

The Dutchman, bass-baritone Greer Grimsley, is a familiar figure here (most impressively as Wotan in Seattle Opera’s “Ring”); he probes every nuance of the title role as a captain doomed to sail the seas in a ghost ship until he is redeemed by true love. With Grimsley’s commanding stage presence and resonant voice, this is a role that suits him admirably, and one he has frequently sung. The experience shows.

His Senta, Australian soprano Rebecca Nash, is making her Seattle debut — and what an interesting debut it is. Nash is a passionate singing actor with a voice of considerable heft and power. Early in the show, the vibrato sounded a bit heavy, and there was a hint of strain, but later these factors vanished in an all-out effort that included fearless, thrilling high notes.

Nikolai Schukoff, as her unsuccessful and hapless suitor Erik, is an ardent singer who becomes a tragicomic figure in this staging, with exaggerated attitudes of suffering that draw some audience laughter. (Alden has him attempting suicide in several positions with a rifle whose barrel is too long for the task.) You’d think that chuckles might be inappropriate in this ultraserious opera, but they humanize the characters and give more poignant depth to the denouement.

As Senta’s father, the sea captain Daland, Daniel Sumegi creates a memorable portrayal with his mighty voice and his deft acting. Colin Ainsworth is a lyrical Steersman and a highly effective actor; Luretta Bybee does fine work in the shorter role of Mary.

The chorus is simply terrific, whether the task involves grappling with the high seas, roistering in celebration afterward, or engaging in some cleverly stylized spinning. There’s no room for error in these fast-moving scenes, and the chorus manages all the synchronized action while singing remarkably well (a tip of the hat to chorusmaster John Keene).

Conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing, who made his Seattle debut with the company’s 2014 International Wagner Competition, coaxed vivid and exciting performances from an orchestra that knows this composer inside and out.

Sunday’s alternate cast created a remarkably different show. In the title role, Alfred Walker was a strong actor with a warm tone that didn’t quite have the heroic presence that Wagner requires. Wendy Bryn Harmer was a standout Senta with a big, radiant voice; David Danholt (one of the winners of Seattle Opera’s 2014 International Wagner Competition) sang with artful clarity as the ill-fated Erik.

Sunday, however, brought fewer light moments; the atmosphere in the audience seemed less engaged; and, oddly, the counterpoint of numerous audience cellphones tinkling their merry melodies during the show was considerably more extensive. Perhaps it was a barrage of Mother’s Day greetings — but no matter what the day, for an opera audience, silence is golden.

Melinda Bargreen | May 9, 2016

Opera News

CHRISTOPHER ALDEN’S well-traveled, powerful production of Der Fliegende Holländer hit the bullseye, driving Seattle Opera’s first-night (May 7) audience to ecstasy and fury as expected, but the impact of its Senta’s role debut was stunning. Since the vocal primes of Jane Eaglen and Margaret Jane Wray, the company has paraded possible dramatic soprano successors—Janice Baird, Annalena Persson, Lori Phillips, Marcy Stonikas, Christiane Libor, Alwyn Mellor. Each did some good work, and Stonikas has been better than good and may be a successor, but none leaped out as the It Girl. Enter as Senta unheralded Australian Rebecca Nash, a replacement for Mellor with Strauss, but no Wagner, in her bio. Her singing had explosive punch and enveloping power. Her voice had an ample midrange and a shining timbre high. She showed that she could crescendo and decrescendo on a single tone. She matched the intensity of outstanding singing actors Greer Grimsley and Nicolai Schukoff, her Dutchman and her Erik. Grimsley was in top form, his big, black-timbred bass-baritone again sounding like George London resurrected. Schukoff, a much-praised Austrian tenor in his Seattle debut, sang strongly and was riveting to watch. These were three superb performances.

The next day’s alternate trio lowered the intensity level. Wendy Bryn Harmer led with a lovely, lyrical Senta, balm for the ears, excellent but less exciting than Nash. Alfred Walker’s baritonal Dutchman was attractively and smoothly sung but seemed all too untroubled. David Danholt’s Erik was sympathetic and well sung despite some strain on top.

In both casts, Daniel Sumegi’s roughly sung and enunciated Daland did fit the character, Colin Ainsworth’s Steersman was vocally and visually haunting, and Luretta Bybee was a solid Mary. Sebastian Lang-Lessing’s conducting was propulsive and atmospheric. Orchestra and chorus were in fine form. The performances ran without intermission.

Created for Canadian Opera in 1996, Alden’s production sets everything in Allen Moyer’s acoustically- helpful tilted box suggestive of a tempest-tossed ship’s hold and a meeting room. The village women’s semaphoric gestures and the men’s pounding and stomping become the language and the drumbeat of a lockstep society from which deviants like Senta and the Dutchman are ostracized. Erik, a landlubber among sailors, also fails to fit. Their torment lacerates when they sing from torturous-looking or unusual positions: the Dutchman begins “Die Frist ist um” crumpled against the back wall and “Wie aus der Ferne” facing a door instead of Senta or the audience. He not only evokes the Wandering Jew but eventually strips to striped concentration-camp attire. The haunted Steersman paces the set. The Dutchman’s portrait is Erich Heckel’s expressionistic, Munch-like “Man on a Plain.” At the end, Senta holds it before her, and Erik shoots her through it, giving her and the Dutchman their desired release. Alden’s curtain call drew lusty cheers and boos. I thought it one of Seattle Opera’s best productions.

Mark Mandel | Seattle Opera 5/7/2016

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A production by Christopher Alden (2016)