The Boston Lyric Opera’s production of The Flying Dutchman may not the subtlest you will see—the Freudian elements are slathered on pretty thick—but the nervy dramatic concept adds to our understanding of the opera without compromising its core elements.
Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. Presented by the Boston Lyric Opera. At the Citi Performance Center’s Shubert Theatre, Boston, MA, through May 5.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Richard Wagner’s 200th birthday falls on May 22nd. In honor of the event, Boston Lyric Opera (BLO) is presenting this week the nearest most of us will probably ever come to a Wagner premiere: the first U.S. performances of the critical edition of the 1841 version of Wagner’s first mature opera, The Flying Dutchman. And, as academic as such qualifications may appear, this is an edition of Dutchman that is wildly—read, audibly—different from the familiar revised version and in many ways more expressively direct.
In Wagner’s original telling of the Dutchman story, the action is placed in Scotland (he later removed it to Norway). Senta, the daughter of sea captain Donald, is obsessed with the Flying Dutchman: a mariner cursed to wander the seas—except for one day every seven years when he comes ashore—until he finds a faithful woman who will redeem him through her love. Senta sees herself as his savior, though her neighbors shun her for this belief. George, her would-be suitor, attempts to convince her otherwise but ends up setting in motion the events that lead to her death and the Dutchman’s redemption.
Michael Cavanagh’s new production might be called Senta’s The Flying Dutchman: she appears in every scene, either as an actor in the unfolding drama or an observer (where she always appears as her younger self). In the latter episodes, this is sometimes distracting, especially when she interacts with sailors on Donald’s ship. But it also suggests some interesting new ways of understanding the drama: who is the Dutchman? Does he even exist, or is he a figment of Senta’s imagination? More important, what is going on in the opera? Is this entire tale unfolding in Senta’s mind, or is it really happening? And so on.
The biggest problems this new staging presents are small but telling, effectively negating bits of the original narrative to no discernible end. For instance, the famous “Spinning Chorus,” originally sung by the village women as they spin thread to make sails, now accompanies them cleaning fish. It may make sense economically, but the disconnect between words and activity is all a bit jarring.
Then there’s Senta’s demise: traditionally, she throws herself into the sea (a moment foreshadowed in George’s dream). Here, though, she dispatches herself with a knife, a gory little bit that certainly captures the violence of the story but at the expense of its poetic element. Even so, these are small complaints: this may not be the subtlest production (and the Freudian elements are slathered on pretty thick when Donald and the Dutchman are singing the same lines towards the end of the opera), but it is a dramatic concept that adds to discussion and understanding of this opera without compromising its core elements; bravo to Cavanagh and his team for that.
On Sunday, the stars of the show were Gregory Frank (Donald) and Alfred Walker (the Dutchman). Both brought great pathos to their respective roles, and Walker nicely inhabited the tragic, weary stoicism of the doomed mariner. Frank’s character is a bit more nuanced—Donald is, in fact, the only really normal human being among the main characters— and his performance reflected this, with rich shadings of tone and a strong sense of Donald’s moral ambiguity.
As Senta, Allison Oakes delivered a solid, competent interpretation, but there were times (such as the Act 2 ballad) where she sounded held back and a bit too reserved for the part. After intermission, her Senta really took off on some thrilling, fiery flights—her upper register can cut through the orchestra impressively—but in some ways she seems miscast in this role: Oakes could feasibly be an Elsa or an Elisabeth (or an Ortrud or Venus or Gutrune, who she sings this summer at Bayreuth), but as the wild, manic Senta, she never fully convinced.
Alan Schneider and Chad Shelton performed the lesser roles of the Steersman and George, respectively. Both imbued these smaller parts with warmth and character, though Schneider sounded a bit patchy in his upper register at times during Act 1.
Music director David Angus drew some strong playing from the BLO orchestra, an ensemble that hasn’t collectively performed Wagner for nearly a quarter century. One wouldn’t have minded some more frenzy at times and greater depth to the string and brass sound, but Angus’s pacing and command of the score was sure. The BLO chorus managed the lusty drinking songs with enthusiasm and raised a holy terror in the Act 3 scene where the Dutchman’s ship suddenly comes to life.
Wagner originally intended for The Flying Dutchman to be performed without pause, and this is how the original version is written. Friday’s opening night ran straight through, though Sunday’s performance featured a break right before Senta and the Dutchman are introduced in Act 2. This makes no dramatic or musical sense whatsoever: the effect is like having to switch out CDs mid-act. No one goes to the opera to experience such a disruption, and surely a contemporary audience can handle Wagner’s 170-year-old concept without too much grumbling. After all, it’s not as though this is a piece (or production) that drags: if anything, it leaves you wanting more.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.