On Saturday night Washington National Opera returned to the stage of the Kennedy Center Opera House, with a production of Richard Wagner's Der Fliegende Holländer (premiered in Dresden in 1843, with the composer conducting). Wagner found the story for his libretto (also available in English translation), sort of, in a chapter from Heinrich Heine’s novella, Aus den Memoiren des Herren von Schnabelewopski (translation by Charles Godfrey Leland, From the Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski). Heine's eponymous hero does recount the story of the sea captain doomed to sail his ghost ship for eternity, told by his one-toothed great-aunt. It was Heine who modified the folk legend, adding the idea that the Dutchman could be released from his eternal voyage if he found a woman who loved him enough to give up her life for him. Typical of Heine's cynical tone in this story, the story is undermined by an ironic final line: "Poor Dutchman: he is often only too glad to be saved from his marriage and his wife savior and get again on board."
Alan Held and the Zombie Brides in The Flying Dutchman, Washington National Opera, 2008, photo by Karin Cooper
It was a mostly satisfying evening musically, thanks to veteran conductor Heinz Fricke, whose solid beat and sense of Wagnerian scope guided the performance. The brass were regal when necessary (excepting the horns, uncertain of attack at too many crucial moments), and the winds plaintive of tone and true of intonation, allowed by Fricke's sure hand to pierce the texture, along with the harp's sparkle. The chorus had a pointed sound, reduced somewhat in number, but needed to be much more attentive to Fricke's precise beat. Wagner published the opera divided according to operatic conventions (overture, arias, acts, scenes) but later preferred it to be performed as one continuous music drama. The audience personified the work's dual nature, half applauding at the first two or three conventional breaks, only to be hissed at by Wagnerian purists.
Baritone Alan Held, making his debut in the title role, held attention by his intense stage presence more than his voice, which lightened at both extremes. Held seemed to be reserving his forces in the first act, opening up at the meeting with Senta but ultimately remaining, not inappropriately, a Dutchman more of intense mystery than of compelling power. In sheer volume the Daland of Israeli bass-baritone Gidon Saks initially surpassed Held, but the voice was not always wielded with subtlety and seemed to run slightly ragged later, as was the case with Saks's Hunding in last season's Die Walküre (but less so).
Jennifer Wilson in The Flying Dutchman, Washington National Opera, 2008, photo by Karin Cooper
Jennifer Wilson, reviewed last summer as Brünnhilde in the La Fura dels Baus Die Walküre in Florence, took on her first Senta in her triumphant return to Washington (she first sang here in the WNO chorus, and the current members gave her a warm ovation at the curtain call). She has a puissant top, put to impressive use in the final scene, and a buttery tone. Compressing the voice to the luminous floating sound that suits much of the role was not necessarily her strong suit (compared to Gwyneth Jones, for example), at least not yet.
Held and Wilson's voices were beautifully matched for the Senta-Dutchman duet, transformed into a strange domestic scene where she serves him dinner. With the supporting roles, however, the casting quickly became disappointing. Ian Storey had a swallowed, unfocused tone as Erik, the mullet-sporting hunter in love with Senta, dipping under pitch at the top of his range. Andreas Conrad came closer to cracking with each statement of the Steersman's famous song, and Janice Meyerson's Mary was matronly, when she could make herself heard over the orchestra.
Washington National Opera has not staged Dutchman since 1992. This was a revival of the production from New York City Opera, directed by Stephen Lawless, originally scheduled to open on September 11, 2001, and eventually premiered a week after the attack on the World Trade Center. A skewed rectangle of wood frames the raked stage, and backdrops help situate the action, most effectively with rising and falling images that give the impression of watching a ship's deck pitching on the waves. Lawless has either not read the libretto closely or he has attempted to recast the story, but not in a way that shocks (like the Calixto Bieito Dutchman in Stuttgart) or surprises (like the Peter Konwitschny Dutchman in Munich): it just makes the opera a bit of a muddle.
Alan Held in The Flying Dutchman, Washington National Opera, 2008, photo by Karin Cooper
Lawless takes two details from the story and tries to explain them with his staging, magnifying them far out of proportion as a result. First, the angel that arranges the opportunity for the Dutchman to seek a wife on land every seven years is represented by a clumsy wooden bird wing gliding through the stage (sets designed by Giles Cadle). To add to the confusion, the wing first appears with the red light that heralds the Dutchman's approach, long before he has mentioned the angel. The libretto does specify that the Dutchman's ship has "blood‑red sails and black masts," although we never see the sails, just the red light, even emanating from inside Daland's little treasure box (lighting design by Joan Sullivan-Genthe).
Second, instead of a spectral crew, the Dutchman is attended by seven zombie brides, some of them with their breasts partially exposed. No, this was apparently not a confusion of the story with Duke Bluebeard's Castle, but an extrapolation from one of the Dutchman's lines ("the fate awaiting those who break their vow to me: eternal damnation is their lot!"). Otherwise, the costumes were mostly generic, except for the Dutchman, who in a stovepipe hat and extravagant fur coat (the libretto specifies only "black clothing," twice) often looked like he was in a gorilla suit (costume design by Ingeborg Bernerth). Rhythmically coordinated movements by the chorus -- the sailors pulling ropes that stretched across the deck of the ship, leading to nothing, the women laughing in synch at their sewing -- came off as mostly ridiculous (choreography by Matt Ferraro).
There were other curious directorial decisions, none of them having anything to do with the libretto. The women in the spinning scene were costumed like the inmates of a female prison, with a few chartreuse spinning wheels and Mary as a severe, cane-brandishing Frau Blucher. Most disappointing was the conclusion of the opera, in which Senta is supposed to fling herself from a rocky ridge into the sea: "at that same moment the Dutchman's ship sinks and quickly disappears as a wreck. In the far distance the Dutchman and Senta, he embracing her, rise from the water, both transfigured." Wilson simply walked through the crowd, who were ostensibly trying to stop her, and raised her arms at the back of the scene. A few minutes later, an image of two birds appeared, as did two hapless members of the sailors' chorus, who apparently thought they could cross the stage at that point, not realizing that the curtain would open to reveal the final scene. It was a fitting end to a clutzy production.
Anne Midgette, This 'Dutchman' Skirts Wagner's Shoals (Washington Post, March 17)
Tim Smith, 'Dutchman': strong sailing (Baltimore Sun, March 17)
T. L. Ponick, 'Dutchman' finds redemption at WNO (Washington Times, March 17)
Washington National Opera's production of The Flying Dutchman continues through April 10. Tickets remain for the performances on April 2, 7, and 10. Students and young professionals, ages 18 to 35, should join the Generation O program, to qualify for reduced-price tickets to certain performances.