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Wagner's Dutch Treat


flying dutchman

Tomas Tomassonut

There is a popular misconception regarding so-called “high art,” that plays by Shakespeare and operas are elitist, only able to be fully understood and appreciated by the hoity-toity. But is this reputation deserved? What is Hamlet other than a revenge tale worthy of Quentin Tarantino and a ghost story? And what is Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman (Der Fliegende Holländer)if not a rip-roaring ghost story, highly charged by greed, and lest we forget, sexual frisson? (NOTE: This review contains plot spoilers.)

The composer adapted his 1843 opera from 17th century seafaring folklore, about a phantom ship roaming the high seas, never able to return to its home port. Only one thing can spare the ship’s captain -- the eponymous Dutchman (Icelandic baritone Tomas Tomasson) -- from his eternal nautical roaming: True love. Due to a storm off the coast of Norway the Dutchman encounters Daland (bass James Creswell), and they strike a sort of Faustian bargain: The Dutchman offers the Norwegian captain a treasure chest in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

flying dutchman

Tomas Tomasson and Elisabete Matos

Senta was to be played by Portuguese soprano Elisabete Matos, but according to L.A. Opera’s publicist, 12 minutes before the curtain was scheduled to rise on opening night, March 9, in a scene straight out of a 1930s Hollywood musical, Matos “had suddenly become indisposed, and would be unable to perform. Instead, soprano Julie Makerov would…” “Holy mackerel there, Andy!” in the immortal (if stereotypical) words of Kingfish.

As the old saying puts it, “the show must go on!”, and boy, did it ever -- and marvelously so. Maerov flew right into The Flying Dutchman. Fortunately, according to her website bio, Makerov had previously played Senta at Canada and Salzburg, and she performed peerlessly at the premiere. Makerov brought the wronged Senta vividly to life with song and acting, as she tried to defend her honor and purity to two suitors: The Dutchman and the hunter Erik (American tenor Corey Bix). Senta’s sonorous, spirited self defense might even make a Shakespeare write “methinks the lady doth NOT protest too much.” Whether singing “Senta’s Ballad” or the famous duet with the nautical specter she is betrothed to, Makerov admirably rose to the occasion -- especially given her 12 minute notice to report for duty aboard the HMS Chandler.

The sets by Bavarian scenery designer Raimund Bauer, costumes by his fellow German Andrea Schmidt-Futterer and lighting design by Duane Schuler, strike the right imaginative, eerie chords in expressing this shadowy, supernatural saga. During the emotion-laden 10-minute overture, a scrim of surging seas is accompanied by music that could best be called “Wagnerian,” conveying a sense of turbulent, crashing waves. Act I transports us out to sea aboard creatively evoked ships near a Norwegian harbor. Later in this three-acter the entire ensemble gathers at Daland’s Scandinavian village, and the mass mise-en-scene is quite impressive and at times appropriately ghoulish. During these scenes the work of choreographer Denni Sayers -- with some balletic moves -- and chorus director Grant Gershon especially shine.

flying dutchman

As well it should be, the production is quite Germanic -- Schmidt-Futterer’s costumes are at times extremely suggestive of German silent cinema’s Expressionism, with period apparel reminiscent of the demonic title character of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and F.W. Murnau’s telling of the Dracula fable, Nosferatu. In other scenes the costuming reminded me of L.A. Opera’s highly stylized re-telling of Wagner’s Ring Cycle a few seasons back, with its pseudo-Star Wars panache.

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And what of The Flying Dutchman’s music and of the librettist and composer, who about 30 years later would complete The Ring of the Nibelungen? Dutchman’s theme of exile would psychologically appeal to Wagner -- not only because he was a globetrotter himself, but in only five or so years after presenting The Flying Dutchman he would himself become a stateless wanderer due to his taking part in Europe’s 1848 workers revolution. Wagner was forced to flee Germany and live abroad in Switzerland for around 12 years. Like the Dutchman, Wagner would be “banished from his homeland.” The phantom mariner was the first of Wagner’s exile characters, and on a metaphorical, metaphysical level one can perceive that this genius would identify with the outcast. Wagner knew what it felt like to be a persona non grata. And given his tumultuous private life Wagner could presumably relate to the turmoil of the relationship between the Dutchman, Senta and Erik -- a rather messy ménage-a-trois, if ever there was one, with that fourth partner named “fate.”

flying dutchman

The sonorous score, deftly conducted by James Conlon, is full of Wagner’s hallmark sonic sturm und drang: brassy refrains, drums, dramatic outbursts and the like, which some might consider to be bombastic. But the earnest music also conveys a powerful, transcendent sense of yearning and longing -- to belong, be loved and for home. (Note: The two and a half hour-plus opera is being performed sans intermission -- which might have some fans crying: “Gotterdammerung”!)

I recently saw a great new documentary called Wagner & Me, featuring Stephen Fry (who plays Sherlock Holmes’ brother Mycroft in the latest installment of that Robert Downey, Jr. film franchise), who is unabashedly besotted by Wagner’s music. However, he identifies himself onscreen as a Jew who lost family in Auschwitz and takes Wagner to task for, in particular, writing a rather nasty anti-Semitic tract. Frye goes on to discuss the ties between Hitler and some of the Wagner family, which predated the Nazi rise to power by a full decade. The British actor also ponders the Nazis’ cooptation of Wagner’s music, spectacle and legacy (albeit long after the composer’s death), visits the site of the infamous Nuremburg rallies (which he asserts were inspired by Wagnerian pageantry and themes) and for the first time in his life, the inveterate Wagner-lover attends a performance of the Ring Cycle at Bayreuth, that Wagner shrine. As he enters the hallowed concert hall built by Wagner’s music, Fry asserts that we mustn’t allow Hitler to claim Wagner.

ed rampell

Ed Rampell

After all, while Wagner had his inner demons, in 1848 he was on the side of the angels -- and Engels, a fellow German exile, along with Marx. So I wholeheartedly concur with Fry and highly recommend L.A. Opera’s beautiful production of Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.

The Flying Dutchman is being performed on Sundays March 17 and March 24 at 2:00 p.m.; Thursday March 21, Wednesday March 27 and Saturday March 30 at 7:30 p.m. at L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: (213)972-8001;

Ed Rampell

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Photos: Robert Millard