Seagull pilots flown from nowhere, try and touch one
As she slips in on the full tide
And the harbour-master yells
All hands vanished with the captain
No one left, the tale to tell.
So come all you lovers of the good life
Look around you, can you see?
Staring ghostly in the mirror
It’s the Dutchman you will be
Floating slowly out to sea
In a misty misery.
—Jethro Tull, “Flying Dutchman”
By now you’ve probably figured out that I’m a sucker for melody and a general plot whore. Also, that I’m no fan of long running times or most things German and so have made every effort to limit my exposure to Wagner (Richard, not Robert, because who doesn’t love Hart to Hart?).
So it was with some trepidation that I set out for Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) last week at the San Francisco Opera. However, I needn’t have worried, as this is an extremely accessible work. Musically speaking, the first of Wagner’s romantic operas, it is probably the furthest away from the “music dramas” he would later become known for. And plot-wise, the tale of this famous ghost ship, known to most from the Pirates of the Caribbean films, is hard to beat. Had I also known it is intended to be performed without intermission and clocks in at a mere two and a half hours, I would have been even more enthusiastic.
This was a new production, co-produced with the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège (shout out to my violinist cousin living in Belgium!) where it already premiered in the fall of 2011. Keep that in mind as it will come up again shortly.
While I quite enjoyed the performance, La Maratonista and I spent most of the intermission discussing the bizarre overture. The overture of this opera is long, about 11 minutes, which provides a tremendous opportunity for a director to set up the story of the tortured Dutchman doomed to roam the seas and the woman obsessed with him. However, in this production, a good part of the overture played before the curtain rose. And then, after awkwardly rising mid-overture, we didn’t really get to see much, just Senta wandering dreamily around the stage with (presumably, it was hard to see) a sketch of the Dutchman. The projections, which wrapped around three sides of the stage, consisted mostly of stormy seas and at times a sleeping face. It was very odd and not at all satisfying. At the end of the opera, I again wondered about some bizarre staging choices.
I later learned that the director, Petrika Ionesco, who was also the set designer, was fired only a short time before opening night. The preceding week had been a flurry of restaging, which seems to have mostly consisted of stripping out production elements. John Marcher over at A Beast in a Jungle provides an excellent analysis and description of what went down, along with clips from Liège to show just what was lost with these last-minute changes.
From what I can tell, I regret not being able to see Ionesco’s full vision for this work, especially given the glimpses we got of what might have been, such as the Dutchman’s ship, luridly lit up in an eerie red light and festooned with skeletons. The projections also worked well for the most part, especially during the more dramatic moments.
Despite some of my confusion over the plot and set choices, and some rather lame choreography, I had few complaints about the singing. Greer Grimsley as The Dutchman and Kristinn Sigmundsson as Senta’s father Daland stood out among the rest, but I was reasonably impressed by Lise Lindstrom as Senta (I later learned she had strep throat—yikes!) who took over the role when Petra Maria Schnitzer withdrew. A. J. Glueckert’s part as the Steersman was small but his voice memorable. The chorus, who is really getting to show off this season, was fabulous.
Although some reviewers had problems with the music, I loved it. But, again, I’m a sucker for great melodies so perhaps this enthusiasm stems from the fact that Patrick Summers at the orchestra’s helm “sounded more like Bellini on steroids than Wagner.” And I do love bel canto. [Side note: Who do I have to sleep with to get San Francisco Opera to give me La Cenerentola? Seriously. Call me.]
Despite the flaws in this production, some of which I’m hoping will be fixed in future performances, this is a great opera for newbies and worth seeking out. There are five more performances of The Flying Dutchman at the War Memorial Opera House, tonight, and on November 3, 7, 12, and 15.