Flying Dutchman at LA Opera

But what exactly is the flying Dutchman — a ship or a
person? The French title of the opera is Le Vaisseau fantÙme — The Ghost
. Indeed, sailors have it that The Flying Dutchman is a ghostly Dutch
Man-of-War lost rounding the Cape of Good Hope, which still appears and
disappears mysteriously. Christian mythology describes The Flying Dutchman as a
person — as the Wandering Jew of the Ocean, who made a pact with the Devil and
must wander eternally until he finds a woman who will love him faithfully.

The wonderful aspect of great tales is that they can be anything and
everything to whomever encounters them. Even more wonderful is the fact that
they are often transformed into deeper, more meaningful and lasting works by
writers and composers of genius. Such is the case of Richard Wagner’s musical
interpretation, which combines both the nautical and Christian myths.

The story that captivated Wagner’s imagination was Heinrich Heine’s The
Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski
in which a young woman in love with
the portrait of the flying Dutchman, meets the man when he comes ashore to seek
a wife — and pledges to love him forever. When he later doubts her love, and
unhappily sets sail again, she throws herself into the sea, after which the
Dutchman is redeemed by her sacrifice, and their two souls are united

As James Conlon, Los Angeles’ engagingly enthusiastic music director and
conductor, told an audience in his customary in brief talk before the opera’s
performance, Wagner’s view of the “Dutchman” as a man in conflict with
society, was a reflection of his perception of himself as a revolutionary and a
genius neither understood nor appreciated by the crass bourgeois world around
him. The Dutchman is a societal outcast, doomed to eternal wandering until he
can be saved by a woman’s love. Salvation by love that leads to death is a
theme that will be central to many of Wagner’s succeeding works. Senta, the
woman who eventually pledges her love to the Dutchman, is also a social misfit,
(as is the cursed Kundry of Parsifal, and wrongly accused Elsa of
Lohengrin) In this case, Senta who would rather stare at a ghostly
portrait, than sit at a spinning wheel as other “normal” young woman do, is
jeered and relentlessly teased by her peers.

Unfortunately, the Company used a production created by Nikolaus Lehnhoff in
2001 for Chicago (presented again in San Francisco in 2004) which veers
dramatically from Conlon’s view of the work.

Among the major disconnects is the opera’s costuming. In this production
Senta and the Dutchman — the non conformists are dressed in simple loose
cloth garments, whereas the sailors are outfitted in cumbersome silvery space
suits. The “normal” young women who according to Wagner’s libretto spend
their time spinning instead of mooning over a flying Dutchman, here, sit around
in black tights, black shoes and black and gold hoop skirts. There are even
some who spin themselves on black ballet slippers and manage to look remarkably
like Hanukkah dreidels.

There is a story disconnect. In Lehnhoff’s version of the last scenes the
Dutchman turns his back on Senta believing she does not love him, whereupon the
desperate and heartbroken Senta, left alone on stage, dons his black cloak and
walks into a gathering mist. Not surprisingly my companion, new to this opera,
didn’t understand the ending.

And there’s a physical — as in too much material — disconnect. Though there
are some wonderful lighting effects, this is a dark production — sets and
costumes are essentially black and steely gray. Yet most of the opera’s action
takes place behind a scrim — sometimes two scrims. I have no idea what two
scrims do to sound, but if one tries to pierce the visual obscurity using
binoculars one sees the performers faces nicely graphed.

Musically, the work fared much better, and featured the thrilling Los
Angeles Opera debut of native Angelino, Soprano Julie Makerov, as Senta, when
moments before the curtain was to go up, Portuguese soprano Elisabete Matos,
felt too ill to perform. Makerov, who had sung the role before, brought a rich,
warm voice and dramatic commitment to the role. Baritone Tomas Tomasson, also
debuting with the Company offered a lyrical performance as the Dutchman. James
Cresswell, whose baritone seems a shade darker than Tomasson’s, was a vigorous
Daland. Corey Bix did as well as possible in the thankless role of Eric. Tenor
Matthew Plenk, in another of the evening’s debuts, was moving in the
Steersman’s tender aria. Ronnita Nicole Miller, a singer I always enjoy, was
Senta’s nursemaid. The chorus, which plays such a large role in this work,
turned in another of its impressive performances. In an unusual final curtain
call, Maestro Conlon,who led a taut performance, had the orchestra — horns,
violinists and all mount the stage for their share of applause and cheers.

Estelle Gilson

here for cast and production information.

image_description=Tomas Tomasson as the Dutchman and Elisabete Matos as Senta [Photo by Robert Millard courtesy of Los Angeles Opera]
product_title=Flying Dutchman at LA Opera
product_by=A review by Estelle Gilson
product_id=Above: Tomas Tomasson as the Dutchman and Elisabete Matos as Senta [Photo by Robert Millard courtesy of Los Angeles Opera]