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17.11.04

Flying Dutchman in San Francisco

Other Reviews/Resources:

Tiffany Maleshefski, Waiting for 'Dutchman' (San Francisco Examiner, November 12)

Thomas May, Viewpoint (San Francisco Opera, where you can also watch a video clip of the production and read a synopsis)

Ralph Hexter, Goethe, Byron and Wagner (program notes from San Francisco Opera)
The latest production from my preview of the opera season, 2004–2005, to open is Nikolaus Lehnhoff's Der fliegende Holländer (1843), from the Lyric Opera of Chicago and now at the San Francisco Opera (until December 1). Some of the reviews are in, like Joshua Kosman's article (With a ghoulishly murky 'Dutchman,' Opera puts on a truly grim production, November 12) for the San Francisco Chronicle. He's not happy with either the production ("a black-on-black nightmare of ghoulish abstractions") or the performances ("alarmingly short of the company's usual standards"):
Lehnhoff's production, a loaner from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, seems to be set among the flesh-eating zombie sailors of Venus. Nearly the whole thing takes place behind a scrim (sometimes two), and Duane Schuler's crepuscular lighting ensures that none of the action registers clearly. Not that there's much action to be seen. Lehnhoff, whose previous work here has included the classic 1985 "Ring" cycle and the controversial but fascinating sci-fi "Parsifal" of 2000, has taken a page from director Robert Wilson's book, moving the performers through a series of static, geometrically organized poses (Senta spends much of the evening sitting motionless at center stage).
Stephanie von Buchau's review ('Dutchman' soars musically, but lands with a thud, November 12) for the Alameda Times-Star is also negative:
On a scale of one to 10, the San Francisco Opera's new production of Richard Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman," which opened Wednesday at the War Memorial Opera House, is musically an eight. The production, however, is barely a four. Given the blather SFO dispenses about "modern" and "contemporary" solutions to the stodginess of opera, how disappointing is it when an apotheosis, written into the music, is funked by the production team?
Mike Guersch's review (Soprano buoys 'Dutchman', November 13) for the Mercury News praises the performances but asks some questions about the direction:
It's a good thing the music was so memorable, because the production was unusual. Stage director Nikolaus Lehnhoff has focused on the twisted psychological worlds of the Dutchman and Senta, with everything revolving on the lonely inner worlds of two people who can relieve their anguish -- his physical, hers mental -- only through death. This isn't a bad interpretive idea, necessarily, but it comes at a price: The one set has no sails, no rigging. The women's spinning wheel scene has no spinning wheels. In the third scene, the white-faced sailors dance with top hats and canes (think of the scene from "Young Frankenstein").

In the finale, when everybody is supposed to be on stage trying to prevent Senta from belly-flopping off a cliff, nobody's around. She simply walks off the stage, quietly and slowly. So we're not sure what to make of the ending, and this production wisely leaves out the "redemption" motif that Wagner added to the score several years after finishing it. The use of the original ending is debatable, but in this context it made the most sense.
Georgia Rowe's review (Wagner's 'Dutchman' redux a high-flying triumph in S.F., November 13, 2004) for the Contra Costa Times is the most positive overall:
This was a "Dutchman" with a difference. Boldly staged and brilliantly performed, . . . it was also an extremely rewarding evening for Wagnerians. The composer's operas have figured prominently in Donald Runnicles' 12-year tenure as San Francisco Opera music director, and his music always benefits from this conductor's attention to dramatic pacing, orchestral color and nuance. Yet even Runnicles' longtime admirers had to be impressed by the focused intensity of Wednesday's performance (which repeats through Dec. 1). The heightened Romanticism of Wagner's score (performed in its original one-act version, without intermission) elicited a magnificent response from the conductor, his supremely united orchestra and an energized cast. The result was a production that not only overcame the challenges of staging the work, but emerged as one of the company's most cohesive efforts of the season. [...]

Lehnhoff emphasizes the mysterious, dreamlike qualities of the story; Raimund Bauer's stark set designs, glowingly lit by Duane Schuler, are simple and extremely effective. The long, two-level side view of the ship revealed in Act 1 morphs into the austere confines of Daland's house in Act 2; the action is continuous, but scrims depicting the turbulent sea serve to smooth the transitions. Costumes by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer manage to evoke the feudal and the futuristic, often in the same scene. Lehnhoff creates a series of striking stage pictures: the Dutchman's eerie first entrance, for example, through a huge, propeller-shaped opening in an upstage wall; or Senta, in her first scene, surrounded by a buzzing hive of spinning women in metallic hoop skirts. But the evening's high point, aptly enough, comes in the Act 2 love duet between the Dutchman and Senta, staged in a luminous tableau marked by a striking sense of stillness.
For now, San Francisco Opera has extended the tenure of Donald Runnicles as its Music Director, although he had hinted that he might want to reconsider staying in the United States if President Bush were re-elected, as discussed in Joshua Kosman's article (Runnicles re-signs with Opera, November 15) for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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