Seattle Opera's enjoyable, traditional Flying Dutchman

The singing is splendid and the production is admirable, but if Seattle really is Wagner-mad, why play it so safe in this most-produced of Wagner's operas?
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The Flying Dutchman, played by Greer Grimsley, laments his fate

The singing is splendid and the production is admirable, but if Seattle really is Wagner-mad, why play it so safe in this most-produced of Wagner's operas?

The flying Dutchman in Wagner's opera lands his accursed ship every seven years, but his trips to Seattle have been a bit more spread out: first in 1972, then 1989, and now this summer, in a revival of the 1989 production. This was a generally admirable performance. The singers were proficient, the orchestra played quite well, the chorus was really splendid in their great scene in Act 3, and the conducting of Asher Fisch was traditional but shapely and tidy. If the feelings generated were something less than triumphant, the reasons lie in the overall performance style and the choice of the work itself. Flying Dutchman was not Wagner's first opera. It was preceded by three works which were influenced by Italian composers such as Spontini, the French operas of Meyerbeer, and Wagner's German antecedents, Weber, Heinrich Marschner, and E.T.A. Hoffmann. His third opera, Rienzi, is a grandiose conflation of Wagner's ideas up to that point and, if performed uncut, might be his longest single opera. The Dutchman was written in the early 1840s and revised in 1860, as discussed in General Director Speight Jenkins' thoughtful essay in the program booklet. Almost all the music, however, is from the original version, which is a stylistic bridge between Wagner's early work and his later operas. It is still a "number" opera, with regular closed forms (aria, duet, chorus) separated by recitative. Passages which look directly forward, such as the Dutchman's first solo, "Die Frist ist um," almost a mature Wagner monolog, keep uneasy company with pieces like the ensuing Dutchman-Daland duet, which is quite old-fashioned. The question of performance style is a simple one: do we cast and conceive of Dutchman as a work of the 1840s or as a genuine "Wagner opera"? To put it another way, do we get the Agathe of Weber's Freischutz or Brünnhilde? Most opera companies today choose the latter, as did Seattle Opera, but does this really serve the work? Senta is an impressionable young girl, with a fixation upon a mythical figure rather than a love of horses or rock stars, but still a vulnerable teenager. Jane Eaglen, despite some resplendent singing, can hardly be expected to suggest such a figure. Since the opera is scored for a normal-sized orchestra and much of Senta's music is lyrical and lightly-written, why not a lyric soprano of the type Wagner would have recognized in the 1840s, before singers had to be "helden (heroes) to sing his music? If you have Brünnhilde, you must have Wotan, so Greer Grimsley took the part of the Dutchman. He too poured out the sound we have come to expect, but, unlike Eaglen, his singing is basically monochromatic and he didn't arouse the sympathy so necessary for the opera's meaning. If everything was scaled down, and if the orchestra could be restrained in the first-act aria, a warmer, more subtly inflected cantabile could humanize the character and do more justice to the Italianate character of some of the role's highlights, such as the duet with Senta in Act 2. The roles of Erik and Daland, not very grateful ones, were capably taken by Jay Hunter Morris (better in the dramatic moments than the lyrical ones) and Daniel Sumegi. As in many performances of this opera (this may be the true curse of the Dutchman), the Steersman sounded best of all: Jason Collins in his Seattle Opera debut. I think the director Stephen Wadsworth might also have preferred a less grandiose atmosphere, since he added some undercutting touches of comedy to his 1989 staging. I don't remember the clashes of period being so obvious before: in the second act there was a refrigerator onstage (I kept hoping the Dutchman would show some curiosity and open it) and in the third act a chorister was working busily away at his laptop (blogging, no doubt) and blue jeans were much in evidence (at least I wasn't the only one dressed down for the evening). All this served to underline the fact that the Dutchman is from another time, if not another planet. All in all, an enjoyable, traditional performance. But why, for the "special" summer event, choose an opera that doesn't have the unusual rehearsal requirements of the major Wagnerian masterpieces, and is his most often performed work? If Seattle is really Wagner-mad, why not one of the three early operas? A performance of any of them, especially Rienzi, on this level of achievement would be a gift indeed. Or to better understand Wagner in context, how about some of the operas that were so important to the formation of his art? The great works of Meyerbeer, Halèvy, and Spontini pose severe casting problems today, but a good choice would be something by Marschner. Wagner, during his brief conducting career in the 1830s, led operas by this composer and even wrote some music for them. Marschner's Hans Heiling is full of pre-Wagner touches and held the stage in Germany for much of the 19th century. Or E.T.A. Hoffmann's Undine? So many possibilities! If financial constraints are the issue, I'd vote for every other year and do something big like Rienzi or even Berlioz's Troyens or Cellini. An August opera needs to be an attention-grabbing event, which was not the case with this Dutchman.


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