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May 9, 2016 |
opera_reviews  |
Anthony P. Radford

Review: Seattle Opera presents triumphant production of The Flying Dutchman

Photo courtesy: Philip Newton, Seattle Opera
Twenty years have passed since the Toronto Star’s John Fraser described the opening of The Flying Dutchman at the Canadian Opera Company as a “corrosive assault on the imagination that I’m trying to figure out”. William Littler of the same newspaper lamented that in this version there was no ship and no ascent to heaven for Senta and that too much was left to the imagination in this production.

On Saturday night in Seattle, in a revival of this Canadian Opera Company 1996 production, what happened on stage can only be described as stunning. Rather than feeling assaulted, or left connecting too many loose ends, I was left gobsmacked unable to write-so moved I was by this show. It has taken me 24 hours to recover.

Stage Director Christopher Alden and Costume Designer Allen Moyer conceived this production 20 years ago in Toronto and I think, after being presented two more times in Toronto (to mixed reviews) and other places in the world, this production’s time has come. We live in a time of loose ends, much more now than in 1996. Financial catastrophe has left us a little more insecure, the globe is warming, and fascism and suspicion of the outsider is making a comeback. Like Wagner’s work, the best art makes a statement and lurks, waiting for its time.

Wagner’s music needs no introduction. It is expansive and yet at times can be very intimate. In this opera, which was his first success, there are shades of the bel canto even while Wagner explores the edge of tonality in an effort to present thematic ideas rather than simple narrative. Wagner intended the opera to be presented without breaks between acts and the Seattle Opera in this production honors his “through-composed” vision to great effect. (And for those who were a little scared of being subjected to 2.5 hours of uninterrupted opera the program likened it to the length of time we all have sat through a movie)

The Dutchman and his ship of boiling bodies, is death. Doomed to sail the seas and check in at port every 7 years to find respite. The idea of the opera is love that transcends death. And while the Dutchman is the title character, it is Senta’s story really. She is the small town girl who longs for more than her earthbound hunter boyfriend Erik can give her. She has a higher calling, to tame the Dutchman (and in a way death) through love. Although she has never met him, she longs to be with him forever. While at sea, the Dutchman’s vessel comes alongside her father’s ship and by making a deal with her father to wed Senta, ends up on her doorstep. They are married and she is killed by the jealous Erik. In death she is united with the Dutchman forever.

The Dutchman was played on this night by Greer Grimsley. Grimsley has a swarthy dark voice that while powerful, is also versatile. It is easy for these Wagnerian singers to belt their way (at their peril) through these roles, but Grimsley always finds the color and the essence of the character.

Rebecca Nash, who played Senta, ruled the evening vocally and dramatically. The voice was all there all the time, high, low, she had it. And like Grimsley she found the colors. She paced herself on this opening night, but really opened up at the end of Act II.

Nikolai Schukoff as Erik seemed vocally out of his depth. As the only ‘sane’ character on the stage, I was hoping for a little more strength generally, as I think it is his sanity that keeps this world grounded. One can ask whether it is sane to shoot your girlfriend for loving another, but compared with Senta wanting to be with an immortal death pirate--I’ll let you be the judge of who is sane here.

Shout out to Colin Ainsworth who was the most lyric voice on the stage. Vocal beauty is still important in Wagner, and Ainsworth brought loads of it. The Steersman sees this tale for what it is and knows it “ain’t going to end well”. Ainsworth, in the most athletic of roles, spent much of his time crawling, lying, rolling across, along and through the set. In the final scene he has to make what is probably the slowest right cross in the history of opera. Kudos.

Senta’s Father on this night was played by the full voiced Australian Daniel Sumegi, and rounding out the cast was American mezzo-soprano and New England Conservatory voice teacher Luretta Bybee.

The production is a must-see and has 5 more performances May 11, 14, 18, 20 and 21 at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall.

Anthony P. Radford
Review Editor, Opera Journal
Associate Professor of Voice,
California State University, Fresno

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Opera Association, its Board, Officers or Membership.

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