Der fliegende Holländer

Thomas Guggeis
Santa Fe Opera Chorus and Orchestra
7 August 2023
The Crosby Theater Santa Fe
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
DalandMorris Robinson
SentaElza van den Heever
ErikChad Shelton
MaryGretchen Krupp
Der Steuermann DalandsBille Bruley
Der HolländerNicholas Brownlee

O Captain! My Captain!

The Santa Fe Opera (SFO) launched its 2023 season with a riveting Tosca last Friday, and last night The Flying Dutchman opened with yet again standing ovations.

The very first bar of the overture sets the tone of a powerful reading by German conductor Thomas Guggeis. At thirty, Guggeis is making his debut with the SFO after conducting the same work at the Met last month and Elektra in 2022. The Maestro, as if he were the Dutchman himself, familiar with the misnamed Cape of Good Hope, conjures up the might and ferocity of the sea as we are sprayed with salt and crested waves and shattered to pieces by gale-force winds. We have a few seconds to breathe with a transparent delineation of the short‑lived redemption theme, and the cyclone rages again until it finally abates. Stunning. All throughout the opera, the conducting will be purposeful, and the sound of the orchestra will glow with biting intensity and clarity, particularly on the sharp chromatic figures of the strings, well-defined horn calls, and powerful winds (no pun intended). The SFO chorus is massive, with perfect unison and first-rate musicality. Under Chorus Master Susanne Sheston, those singers never disappoint.

Nicholas Brownlee is a strong, ringing Dutchman, finely detailed and lyrical. The voice is powerful, and Wagner does not seem to cause any problem to this bass‑baritone. His sense of German phrasing is flawless. At curtain calls, he receives a huge ovation. Soprano Elza van den Heever is a sweet and firm Senta. Intense in her ballad, she has a commanding presence with a most persuasive sense of line while preserving the inner light of the character. The voice easily carries over a thunderous orchestra. She, too, will be greeted with a standing ovation. Morris Robinson as Daland is dark in tone and secure. His character is portrayed appropriately. Tenor Chad Shelton is an illuminating and virile Erik. Shelton seems perfectly at ease with this role, but perhaps he should have sung with more inclination to the bel canto coquetries. Gretchen Krupp is a solid Mary, and Bille Bruley a suitable Steersman.

Staging by David Alden is unorthodox but compelling. Moving the action in the 1940s allows the director to introduce novel perspectives, some of which are daring. The “Summ und brumm” chorus in Act II takes place in the belly of a vessel, where there is no spinning wheel. The only wheels turning are those of the engine room, and household duties have taken the place of the spinning. All this is depicted in a quite creative and meticulous choreography by Maxine Braham. The last scene takes liberties with the original libretto and may have confused any unprepared spectator, or first-timers. The Dutchman’s ship is represented as a pile of gigantic dark cubes that rises from under the stage and sinks back as the opera ends and Senta dies, entangled in the moorings. A very dramatic and arresting idea.

Christian Dalzon | 07/01/2023

Nicholas Brownlee, Elza van den Heever Lead a Vocally Splendid Cast for Director David Alden’s New Production of “Flying Dutchman”

The second night of the Santa Fe Opera’s 2023 season was devoted to a new David Alden production of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman (Der fliegende Holländer)”, last performed by the company 35 years ago.

Nicholas Brownlee’s Dutchman
Alabama bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee is cast as the mysterious Dutchman. The role’s dark first aria Die frist ist um revealed Brownlee’s committed acting and large voice with power throughout its range. Brownlee’s projected an intensity that increased the believability of a basically surreal character.

Brownlee, a Santa Fe Opera Apprentice singer in 2013 and 2014 has built up an impressive resume that includes a win in the 2016 international Operalia contest and the 2015 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Grand Prize.

Previously, Brownlee has displayed excellence in the vocal performance of such varied styles as those comprising the operas of Mozart, Wagner, Bizet and Puccini. I have been an admirer of his Los Angeles Opera performances in six different operas, including as Nourabad and as Colline.

Elza van den Heever’s Senta
South Africa born French resident Elza van den Heever is a vocally expressive Senta, memorably performing the role’s great aria Traft ihr das Shiff. Van den Heever effectively portrayed the intensity of the character, whose commitment to self-sacrifice to break the spell of the verdammt Dutchman, seems to those around her to be an act of madness.

I was fortunate to be present 16 years ago for van den Heever’s breakout role at the San Francisco Opera [Review: Kwiecien Excels in McVicar’s Dark Side “Don Giovanni” – San Francisco Opera, June 2, 2007] in which on opening night without a dress rehearsal, she replaced another artist in the role of Donna Anna with great success.

The pairing of Brownlee and van den Heever proved felicitous. Both artists have demonstrated vocal prowess and dramatic instinct in a range of operatic roles.

Morris Robinson’s Daland
The role of the Norwegian ship captain Daland was performed by Georgia bass Morris Robinson. Finding the ship “Flying Dutchman” moored next to his own vessel, the aquisitive Daland meets the Dutchman, who offers him incomparable riches for his daughter’s hand in marriage (a bargain Daland has no problem accepting).

Robinson’s sonorous bass voice and imposing stage presence made for a memorable Daland.

Chad Shelton’s Erik
Texas tenor Chad Shelton was an ardent Erik. Shelton delivered Erik’s heartfelt aria Willst jenes tag’s du nicht stylishly. His character is in despair because of the sudden, strange behavior of Senta, whom Erik has loved since childhood and assumed would become his bride.

Shelton, an alumnus of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, took part in two HGO world premieres that I reviewed of operas by Carlisle Floyd [World Premiere Review: A Triumphant “Prince of Players” for Composer Carlisle Floyd, Baritone Ben Edquist – Houston Grand Opera, March 5, 2016] and Tarik O’Regan.

In addition, I have praised his performances in standard repertory roles as unalike as Pollione [Review: Beautifully Sung “Norma” at HGO Resilience Theater – Houston Grand Opera, April 29, 2018] and Mao-Tse Tung.

Bille Bruley’s Steerman and Gretchen Krupp’s Mary
Texas tenor Bille Bruley was a bright-voiced Steersman, performing the dreamy ballad Mit Gewitter und Sturm with distinction. In Alden’s production the Steersman is a physically demanding role, who is onstage much of the evening.

Bruley was a Santa Fe Apprentice singer during th 2018 and 2019 seasons. As an Apprentice, he created of the role of Benjamin in a 2019 Poul Ruders’ world premiere.

The role of Mary was entrusted to Virginia soprano Gretchen Krupp. Mary supervises the spinning chorus of the busy women employees of Daland’s household. Quick to judge Senta’s behavior, it is her criticisms that lead van den Heever’s Senta to sing her soulful ballad, Traft ihr das Shiff.

The role of Mary in traditional productions is centered between the Wagner’s vivid music accompanying the humming of spinning wheels and the visual image of a chorus of women operating them. No audience should have trouble appreciating what “traditional” Mary is about. In Alden’s staging, Krupp’s Mary is an industrial manager bossing around yellow-coated women. Krupp does what she is asked to do, even if it might confuse the audience.

Maestro Thomas Guggeis and the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra
The Santa Fe Opera’s rousing performance of the opera’s overture, conducted by 30-year German Maestro Thomas Guggeis confirmed that the young maestro’s rapidly growing reputation as a world-class Wagnerian conductor is fully justified.

Susanne Sheston and the Santa Fe Opera Chorus of Apprentices
Utah conductor and chorus master Susanne Sheston made her Santa Fe Opera debut in 2008. Over the past decade and a half Sheston has had responsibility for transforming each year’s group of Santa Fe Apprentices into a working chorus.

Managing artists whose career tracks are as operatic principals rather than members of a standing chorus obviously departs from the usual expectations of a chorus master. The results that Sheston has produced over the years are extraordinary.

David Alden’s production makes spectacular demands on the chorus, not only the singing and occasional dancing that take place in traditional productions of the opera, but requires complex, choreographed physical movement on the chorus’ part. The results are worthy of high praise.

His production enlisted the assistence of New York Scenic Designer Paul Steinberg and (making his Santa Fe Opera debut) Illinois Associate Scenic Designer Brendan Gonzales Boston.

The opening scenes of Alden’s production reveals several of its recurring visual images. A structure is seen, consisting of barred windows with blurred ghost characters attempting to enter. The young Senta draws a sketch of the Dutchman. The windows separate, then a giant cog wheel (a steersman’s wheel?) rolls across the stage. A man with a model of a square-rigger appears, as do sailors roped together.

Although such nautical symbols as the steering wheel and model sailing ship appear, there is minimal \attempt to portray the on-deck and interior spaces of Daland’s ship and none for that of the Dutchman’s.

The ghost ship’s crew does appear prominently, busily transferring boxes of wealth from the Dutchman’s ship to Daland’s home. The spinning wheels which one expects to be visible during the second act’s Spinning Chorus are replaced with mysterious tubular machinery.

Constance Hoffman’s Costumes and Other Crew Members
New York designer Constance Hoffman designed colorful costumes for Daland’s sailors and the citizens of the surrounding community, and yellow hazmat-like uniforms with goggles for the “spinners”. The clothing for the principal artists tended towards modern business attire.

Wisconsin designer Duane Schuler created the lighting, British choreographer Maxine Braham the choreography.Recommendation
I recommend the cast and production of the Santa Fe Opera’s 2023 production of Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” both to the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera.

William Burnett | July 8, 2023

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A production by David Alden (2023)