WNO’s “Flying Dutchman”: Outstanding singing, slow boat

There’s a lot to love in Washington National Opera’s production of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman,” starring Eric Owens. But the pace is a little slow. And that seagull…

Eric Owens as the Flying Dutchman.
Eric Owens as the cursed "Flying Dutchman" in Washington National Opera's current production of Richard Wagner's opera classic. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

WASHINGTON, March 12, 2015 – There’s a lot to love in the Washington National Opera’s current production of Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” (“Der Fliegende Hollander”) at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Eric Owens as the Dutchman in PR photo by Cory Weaver.
Eric Owens as the Dutchman in PR photo by Cory Weaver.

Starring Metropolitan Opera star bass-baritone Eric Owens in the title role, the company’s current “Dutchman” is a visual reprise of its 2008 production by Stephen Lawless and is notable for its uncommonly fine singing. On the downside, its pacing is at times molasses-slow, perhaps a side-effect directly traceable to our region’s extended winter chill.

Arguably the first opera of Wagner’s mature period, “The Flying Dutchman,” is based on the legend of a prideful sea captain cursed by the devil for his ambition and doomed to sail the stormy seas in his dreaded ghost ship for all eternity. Or at least until he can find a woman who loves him passionately enough to follow him back to the sea and redeem him from this curse.

According to the fine print in that curse, Wagner’s anti-hero gets a chance to land and go ashore every seven years to seek and hopefully find that exceptional woman. Unfortunately, when we meet him in Wagner’s opera, we learn the Dutchman (we never discover his name) has tried and failed for at least a century or two in his search for the girl of his dreams.

As his ship drifts in sight of land, he knows it’s time to become a short-term landlubber again. Hope springs eternal, particularly when he discovers on shore the strange but passionate Senta (soprano Christiane Libor), a young woman who—surprise—longs only to love the Dutchman, an apparition she regularly visits in her own obsessive dreams.

Will the Dutchman find true, self-sacrificing love this time around? Semi-spoiler alert: Well, sort of. As most of us know, the road to true love is never easy, particularly when you’re cursed by the devil.

WNO’s reprise use of its 2008 sets in this production—originally imported from the now sadly defunct New York City Opera—was mostly fine for us. The setting is a quirky, expressionistic combination of dark, sea blue-gray exteriors and primary-color interiors that combine to reflect an appropriate dichotomy of hopeful and hopeless moods mirroring the emotions and fate of the Dutchman.

Unfortunately, this production also interposes, on occasion, a large, cardboard-y albatross wing that periodically slides to-and-fro across the stage. It’s apparently an attempt to conjure up the albatross of Samuel Taylor Colderidge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” whose vaguely similar, poetic tale of a cursed sailor was once required reading in public schools when part of their mission was education in Western culture.

As it was in 2008, the seagull imagery is a nice thought, but it’s annoyingly ineffective. My esteemed spouse later said it reminded her of Jonathan Livingston Seagull which was probably the unkindest cut of all.

Christiane Libor as Senta.
Senta (Christiane Libor, left) finds the village girls’ “Spinning Song” to be vapid and silly and pines instead for the mysterious Dutchman, who she’s never met. (Credit: Scott Suchman)

Fortunately, this production’s particular albatross is only a fleeting, minor distraction, since, appropriately, it’s the fine singing of the principals that carries the show, which is really as it should be.

Eric Owens—whom we first encountered many years ago as an up-and-coming singer at the Wolf Trap Opera—is now a Met star in his own right, also serving as occasional host on that company’s “Met in HD” opera simulcasts. His appearance here as the Dutchman amply demonstrates why he’s now at the peak of an already fine career.

While the Dutchman can easily be projected as a dark and angry character, Mr. Owens adds welcome complexity to the role, portraying Wagner’s anti-hero as a man wearied unto death by his horrible fate and verging on the ultimate mortal sin of despair. He’s enduring all this once again when we first meet him on his ghost ship, clinging to the rigging like a cruciform silhouette, with his sin posted on a sign above his head: “Verdammt”—“Damned,” in English.

With his untrusting gait and generally subdued vocal approach in the early moments of the opera, Mr. Owens’ Dutchman is transformed into a compelling and sympathetic Everyman, a uniquely affecting portrayal of this character.

Mr. Owens’ singing throughout is perfectly calibrated to Wagner’s score. Better, even in his deepest low-note excursions, his velvety but authoritative voice can be clearly heard above Wagner’s massive orchestral scoring, an undercurrent that often renders the lower male registers virtually inaudible.

While we are familiar with Mr. Owens’ considerable skills and applaud them, the surprise of the evening actually proved to be soprano Christiane Libor and her individualistic and deeply affecting Senta.

Ms. Libor is produced the required Wagnerian volume in this production with seeming ease. The difference, though, was in the way she managed to do so, retaining in large measure a surprisingly lyrical, almost bel canto quality to her voice, adding as well a substantial measure of assertiveness and determination to her role.

In smaller roles, the remaining frontline cast is the perfect complement to this production’s outstanding pair of leads.

Ain Anger as Daland.
Captain Daland (Ain Anger) and his crew spot the Flying Dutchman’s ghost ship. (Credit: Scott Suchman)

Bass Ain Anger and his amply hearty voice join to create Daland, a ship’s captain who’s tuckered out from his latest voyage and more than happy to trade his daughter Senta to the ghostly Dutchman for an impressive pile of gold.

Tenor Jay Hunter Morris’ bold, impetuous instrument lent swagger and some much-needed dignity to the role of Erik, Senta’s hapless, would-be fiancé. On the flip side, tenor Michael Brandenburg had fun with the humorous role of the Steersman, adding a bit of welcome comic relief to this otherwise serious production.

The WNO orchestra played firmly and well under the baton of the company’s current music director Philippe Auguin. But we disagree with the Maestro’s rather slow pacing. It tended to drag on the production, robbing it of at least some of its visceral sonic excitement.

Perhaps undetectable to some, another issue here was the orchestra’s lack of musical balance. The pit crew could clearly have used a few more violins to create a richer musical fabric than the one we experienced on opening night. We voiced similar concerns over the 2008 production, but in this regard at least, nothing seems to have changed since then at least for this opera. A few more fiddles next time, please—assuming the company can afford them.

On nice symbolic touch, perhaps prefiguring next season’s action—was the added emphasis on the symbolic use of the rigging and lines pulled to and fro across the stage during this opera’s sea sequences. It reminded us, perhaps by intention, of the Norns’ endless spinning of fate in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

Not surprisingly, the entire epic is to be presented in full by WNO for the very first time just a year from today. If this “Dutchman” was scheduled as something of a prequel, it’s a promising start and savvy marketing, too.

Except maybe for Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Rating: **½ (2 and ½ out of 4 stars)

The Washington National Opera production of Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” continues through March 21 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Running time is approximately two hours and twenty minutes, unusually run as a single sustained act without an intermission. Alan Held, who sang the Dutchman in the company’s 2008 production, will reprise that role in the March 11 performance.

Tickets and information: Tickets range from $25 – $300. For more details visit the Washington National Opera section of the Kennedy Center’s website or call  800-444-1324.

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