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'Dutchman' and the Walking Dead

Christiane Libor (Senta) and company, The Flying Dutchman, Washington National Opera (photo by Scott Suchman for WNO)

Richard Wagner considered Der fliegende Holländer -- premiered in Dresden in 1843, with the composer conducting -- as the first of his true music dramas. To this day, it is the earliest Wagner opera staged at Bayreuth. It is also one of the composer's most accessible works, and when it receives a strong cast, like the one heard on Saturday night for the opening of Washington National Opera's production, it can pack quite a punch.

Eric Owens brought more subtlety than power to the title role, vocally speaking, but rather than a menacing antihero, his Dutchman was a sympathetic figure. It was easy to agree with or at least understand his railing doubt of God as a result, where in some performances one assumes, like Dante in Inferno, that the damned are justly damned. We have had glowing reports of Berlin-born soprano Christiane Libor, and she was a generally excellent Senta, with a blazing top for the large ensemble moments, if some shakiness in the soft moments, in the Act II ballad, for example. In another fine company debut, Ain Anger was burly of voice, if a little wild, but made a believably greedy and petty Daland. The voice of tenor Jay Hunter Morris did not suit Erik, with a nasal and braying tone, scooping up to high notes, and disturbingly chewed diction, but his more villainous take on the character worked well as a foil to Owens.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, At WNO, strong ‘Dutchman’ cast makes up for production’s deficits (Washington Post, March 9)
At the podium Philippe Auguin led a precisely calibrated rendition of the score, with Wagner's later emendations observed, as is usually the case. The only tempo choice that raised an eyebrow was that for the spinning song in the second act, which was positively glacial. The chaos of the Act III confrontation with the ghost sailors, with its pandemonium of onstage piccolos and wind machine, was skilfully handled, although unfortunately with the ghost crew piped into the theater through the sound system.

Much of Stephen Lawless's staging, revived from its last production here, in 2008, seems calculated to take us into the disturbed mind of Senta: Giles Cadle's raked floor and skewed concentric rectangles exaggerate the sense of vertiginous perspective; Joan Sullivan-Genthe's garish lighting of icy blue, blood red, and neon chartreuse glows with menace. In the most striking effect, the silhouette of the Dutchman in the painting revered by Senta disappears suddenly, to reappear as the actual Dutchman, positioned in the same way against the backdrop of barren cliffs. Lawless's eccentricities -- the clumsy angel wing, heavy-handed bird imagery, and especially the zombie brides who haunt the fishermen, instead of the ghostly crew -- still seem forced, but overall it is, like many of Lawless's productions, able to walk the fine line between banal traditionalism and disorienting experimentalism.

This production continues through March 21, at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

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