Friday, July 6, 2018

Cincinnati Opera's "Flying Dutchman" highlights hints of Wagner the maestro

Unlike his first big hit "Rienzi," "The Flying Dutchman" didn't seem to cause any later
The Dutchman comes ashore (left) and aboard a temporarily stranded vessel and its sleeping crew.
embarrassment for Richard Wagner as he advanced toward his ideal of "music drama" as the successor to the opera form he inherited. It is the earliest of his works to still hold the stage.

And Cincinnati Opera's current production of "The Flying Dutchman" looks forward to what Wagner was able to achieve in his full maturity. The set-pieces are less isolated and the odd blend of realism and the supernatural is adjusted to emphasize a symbolism that takes in the visual, dramatic, and musical integration that Wagner was working toward in the "Ring" cycle and "Tristan und Isolde."

The most gripping solo in the work comes early, when the accursed title character steps ashore and informs the audience of his plight by soliloquizing on his hopeless quest to be redeemed for a rash vow he made years before as he attempted to round the Cape of Good Hope in a storm. "Die Frist ist  um," he begins, referring to the period of seven years that must pass before he is allowed to seek a woman's true love to end his ceaseless wandering at sea.

The recitative and aria have been reconceived here as an elaborate scena, in which every pause in the vocal line shifts the stance and mood of the title character. The fragile, tormented hope of the mariner for relief from his suffering has been daringly divided in Brenna Corner's application of Tomer Zvulun's original production and staging. So the musical unit formed by the Dutchman's initial appearance more explicitly outlines the weird conditions he sails under and the relentless mental torment it causes him.

Nathan Berg was fully up to making this firm impression as the Dutchman's onshore entrance actually intrudes upon the sleeping crew of a Norwegian captain's homeward-bound ship. The Dutchman is haunting from the start, and his ghostly crew is suggested in figures that appear featureless high up in the set from time to time. A Dutchman gesture here and there summons supernatural powers, reaching a peak when his outstretched arm repulses Erik, the local huntsman wooing the woman the stranger intends to be his relief from the curse. It echoes Daland's keeping the unprosperous Erik at arm's length as the right man to marry his daughter, Senta.

Daland considers with great interest the Dutchman's proposal.
Wearing an eye patch that foreshadows Wotan the Wanderer in "Siegfried," Berg as the Dutchman is far from godlike, only distantly human, yet compelling. The production, with the projected outlines of his ship and the turmoil that surrounds it, totally embraces the uncanny.

The Dutchman is hospitably treated by Daland, the Norwegian captain who is gratefully at home after his off-course adventure. The stranger's negotiations to get access to his host's daughter have a distinctly comical tone. Some of Daland's lipsmacking interest in contracting Senta's marriage to a wealthy man comes through in Arthur Woodley's portrayal, though to be sure Wagner's sprightly music encourages it. As the ghost ship's crew encircles the captain in a parade of  gleaming treasure chests, you get the feeling you're hearing Daland's Jewel Song.

Marcy Stonikas proved to be a soprano fully capable of what Wagner seems to have intended in Senta.  She is not a ditsy ingenue smitten with a fantasy about a heart-wrenching legend. The story of the Dutchman perpetually at sea because of one foolish moment that provoked Satan's curse touches her heart, but not just with sentimental sympathy: A sense of her own destiny sets her apart from her frivolous peers. Stonikas sang like such a woman; plus, with uncommon prima donna daring, she climbed a ladder at the end toward the perch from which Senta would make her final sacrifice.

Senta's workmates are played with vigorous animation by an abundance of choral women. It was a little strange how their Spinning Chorus opening the second act had so little to do with homespun tasks, classically imitated in the music, and a lot to do with flapping and folding sheets. Admittedly, all that wavy action looked pretty as the chorus went on and on, properly annoying Senta.

Erik tries to dissuade Senta from marrying the Dutchman.
Just as "Die Frist ist um" in this production is staged as a dramatic spectacle, so is Senta's ballad made rich visually and dramatically. The portrait of the Dutchman that has fascinated the young woman changes before our eyes as she sings, making the sight of what should be evident to all more a projection of Senta's mental state. This was a risky production decision that mostly made sense, though the audience has to become aware quickly that Senta is seeing something much different in the picture from what the other girls see.

Elizabeth Bishop is Mary, Daland's housekeeper, who seems to be more a factory floor boss than Daland's housekeeper, so numerous are all the women. She captured a sense of both the danger and attraction of the Dutchman's story, and she also conveyed how both Senta's mooniness and her workmates' playfulness have her at her wit's end.

As for the cast's tenors: Jay Hunter Morris does his level best to give substance to  Erik, one of those plaintive tenor roles that skirt wimpiness, like Don Ottavio in Mozart's Don Giovanni. His actions in the last act represent the down-to-earth resistance of the practical world to the Dutchman's plight and Senta's obsession with it. His aria, feelingly projected though it was Thursday, is not among the opera's distinguished solo showcases. Frederick Ballentine Jr. was the lively, engaging Steersman, chief focus of the sometimes raucous but vocally secure Norwegian crew.

From the vivid, well-paced overture on, Christof Perick conducted smartly, and the orchestra — much more rewardingly projected into the room thanks to Music Hall's recent renovation — played brilliantly.  At times, the acoustical brightness favored the ensemble over the singers, whose clarity of diction was variable, making Jonathan Dean's supertitles more valuable than ever. Coordination slipped, perhaps inevitably, only during the tipsy shenanigans of the Norwegians at anchor. The staging made for an invigorating contrast with the long-delayed response of the ghost ship inmates to the celebration. The men's singing matched the women's for style and balanced energy; chorus master Henri Venanzi deserves kudos.

The use of projections was astute throughout, presenting a stormily gray, watery world at the outset and at other crucial points. Use of glowing color in the props suggested some of the livid emotions that drive the story. The transfiguration scene at the very end — which must always be an immense staging challenge — took the breath away. It alone accomplished everything the composer-librettist must have wanted his agonized redemption story to mean. And it was simply the crowning success in an astonishingly seaworthy production.

[Photos by Philip Groshong]

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