Dallas Opera 2018-2019 Review: Der Fliegende Holländer

Anja Kampe & Greer Grimsley Lead A Haunting Performance of Wagner’s Early Masterpiece

By Freddy Dominguez

Halloween is around the corner and the Dallas Opera has, by chance or choice, opened its season with an opera that offers equal servings of fright and delight.  The second performance of the run was jaw-droppingly good, the stuff of crazy dreams and desperate nightmares.

The story is relatively simple. Satan has cursed the Dutchman to wander the seas aimlessly forever unless, as he is allowed every seven years, he can find a true love on shore. On this night he seems on the brink of success as he convinces a sea captain, Daland, to give him his daughter, Senta. Senta is pursued by Erik, but she is strangely taken by a painting of the Dutchman and his story.

This obsession leads to bliss upon encountering the Dutchman in the flesh. But the Dutchman ultimately doubts her love and decides to spare her as he leaves for another seven years of wandering. To prove her true love she kills herself (in the original, by jumping off a cliff).

Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” was his fourth completed opera (his first project, “Die Hochzeit” was never completed). Here the composer experimented with traditional forms and traditional themes to peculiar and exhilarating effects. Thematically, this spooky story fits well within a tradition of Germanic Romanticism with a taste for the macabre and ghostly. Musically, this opera sticks to proper numbers– arias, duets, trios– and is free of some of the sonic challenges the composer would pose in subsequent years.

That said, the opera is not business as usual. Wagner is able to explore the human psyche through a musical language filled with all the Wagnerian goodness that would come later in larger doses: leitmotifs, thick orchestrations, and a general emphasis on the complex interaction of orchestral and vocal lines.

Coming In Waves

Emmanuel Villaume brought out all the excitement, richness, and beauty in the score.  At first, I was skeptical. The initial moments of the overture lacked punch, but soon I understood that a relatively sedate beginning served to shape this piece and the whole opera.  

Though Wagner’s music could be played for sheer volume and bombast, Villaume made sure to avoid caricature. The music washed over us in waves, small ones at first culminating in high crests of sound. Stretches of control only emphasized the incredibly powerful moments of abandon, especially in choral outbursts that were true sonic wonders.

Overall, Villaume masterfully phrased the whole work to maximize the concluding moments of musical grandeur and splendor that literally left my mouth open.      

Illuminating A Dull Space

Exquisite lighting saved this Canadian Opera Company production.

Allen Moyer’s set places the action within an enclosed, grey and drab room with windows on stage left, a spiral staircase, lighthouse-style, on stage right, and a large wheel in the foreground. Various elements transform the space into a ship, Daland’s home, and an ambiguous space near the Dutchman’s vessel. These transitions were not as effective as they might have been. They were often distracting and/or confusing. The space did not make for a convincing ship. And why were those chairs hanging on the wall at Daland’s house?  And where were the revelers in scene three with relation to the Dutchman’s ship– inside or outside?

Still, the production made effective use of marginal spaces. Beneath the boxy room there is a space hemmed off by sloppily latticed planks through which the ghostly crew of the Dutchman’s ships appeared to chilling effect. A sliver of front stage provided room for the singers as they walked through it to mime or suggest the characters’ psychological states. At one point, Senta and the Dutchman walk past each other while carrying pictures of the other. This was a smart way to depict how both were enthralled by the idea of the other.

This production ultimately worked because of Anne Militello’s extraordinary lighting design. She created a world of arresting color:  ghoulish red, floods of Elysian lights, oil-lamp yellows, and even neon purples and greens all got to the pith of any scene and the psychological context that informed it.

On the Rise

I first heard Andrew Stenson as Danny Chen in the powerful premiere of “An American Soldier” at the Opera Theater of St. Louis this past summer. There he showed how he could master a long, challenging role. Here he proved he can make something big out of a small one. The Steersman of Daland’s ship does not have much music, but he has an important ballad early on, “Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer.”  In it, he sings about roughing the waves to reach his lover, a tuneful but somewhat platitudinous piece that serves as a foil to the twisted love story to follow.

Stenson’s voice fit the music perfectly. It is slender and flexible, but tends toward darker colors and has a resonant middle that give it weight. These qualities allow him to impart the aria with enough sailor earthiness to suggest both irony and mirth.  

Stenson is also a good actor and succeeded during his many non-singing moments. At the end he stands out as he wanders gloomily and entranced. The character, initially so full of good-natured simplicity, seems to articulate a general message of despair.

Playing It Lightly

Mark Doss played Daland mostly for laughs. His resonant and well-shaded baritone allows for some roughness here and there in the service of a role of a commoner moved mostly by earthly concerns. He is a practical man, but not one without ambition and lusts that are spurred by all the shiny jewels the Dutchman has to offer.  

Though Doss’s portrayal is convincing, his accentuation of the comedic and even buffoonish aspects of the character somewhat undermined the seriousness with which he jumped into his relationship with the Dutchman. During moments when he played the role more or less straight, especially in his early duet with the Dutchman, both Doss the singer and Daland the character proved forces to be reckoned with.

Passionate Lovers

Tenor Jay Hunter Morris played Erik, the jilted lover, earnestly. The role was so well-constructed, so full of palpable love and concern, that there was real uncertainty about whether or not he would kill Senta. After some false starts, his actual shot was shocking.

This drama and tension was all conveyed even despite some vocal difficulties. The role benefits from a clean, forceful tenor with enough shading potential to evoke sweetness. Morris possess all these qualities, but throughout this performance there were also signs of an unwanted smoky tone, some overly nasal sounds especially on “I” vowels, and by the end, some hoarseness that led to one or two missed notes and a generally precarious final scene.

In a way, these liabilities worked dramatically against the awesome, unrelenting force of Greer Grimsley’s Dutchman. Standing like a huge conical mass underneath a long black cloak, he unleashed torrents of focused, burnished sound.

Much as Wagner himself envisioned the character, Grimsley’s interpretation was deliberate. All emotion was represented in subtle gestures and nuanced musical shading. From where I sat, the Dutchman’s voice and that demeanor not only implied but embodied the supernatural. His interest in salvation was real, but his torture had been such that all true hope was gone, leaving only a dark life-force in its place.

Anja Kampe’s Senta was a well-drawn portrait of psychological despair. Her obsession with the Dutchman even before meeting appeared bizarre and disturbing, while her singing was lush, clear, and beautiful.

Her Act Two ballad, “Taft ihr das Schiff im Meere an, Blutrot die segel, schwarz der mast,”  a centerpiece of the whole opera, was arguably the highlight of the evening. Not only did it give the audience the necessary story about the Dutchman and his curse, but it convincingly articulated her infatuation and its haunted roots. Early on, some of the high tessitura seemed challenging, but once the voice was fully warmed up, Kampe sang with force and precision to match the Dutchman. Her singing in Act three, both controlled and wildly ecstatic, stands out as some of the most electrifying music-making I have heard in a very long time.  

A Failure to Communicate

Wagner was able to take an antiquated, often un-theatrical stand and deliver operatic form and turn that stilted quality into a core element of the drama. In other words, the artifice of the “numbers” themselves become essential for expressing the distance among the different characters.

As effectively emphasized in this production, the characters rarely “talk” to each other. Each one is wrapped up in his or her own interests leaving little room for successful communication. On the occasion when there is a true union– when Senta and the Dutchman touch each other– there is a feeling of incredible transgression and revelation.

Senta’s death at Erik’s hands, as opposed to her deadly leap originally envisioned, is important. Although Wagner intended this moment to embody ideals of female constancy, her death at someone else’s hands offers a slightly different spin. The sacrifice comes within the context of manipulations of the men in her life: father, lover, and ghostly Dutchman. Senta, as willfully played by Kampe, is not only a redemptive heroine, but is a woman who has no choice but to die for her own freedom.