The sultry weather outside the Alice Busch Opera Theater in Cooperstown, New
York moved indoors for an erotic and riveting production of The Flying
Dutchman that put all the characters’ sexual frustrations front and
center. Call it “Tennessee Williams meets Richard Wagner at the Glimmerglass
This work, the first to announce Wagner’s distinctive style, is based on a
nautical legend as retold by the poet Heinrich Heine. The Dutchman has been
doomed to sail the world as punishment for uttering a blasphemous oath. Every
seven years he is permitted to step on land to seek a woman who will be
faithful to him and provide him release from the curse. So far, no luck.
As envisioned by Director Francesca Zambello, who is also the Festival’s
Artistic and General Director, this Dutchman needs female companionship in the
worst way, and who can blame him? As a result, one key prop in this production
is a bed, specifically Senta’s bed. She is the latest object of his desire
— and his hope for release.
Fortunately for him, Senta is obsessed with the legend of the Flying
Dutchman. After the justly famous overture, Zambello places Senta on the bed in
the midst of a nightmare as a storm rages off the coast of Norway. She is
enveloped in a black cloud of cloth, flailing wildly as she foresees her own
The bed returns when Senta gives herself to the Dutchman as a sign of her
enduring fidelity. She will save him from his accursed wandering. Her Dutchman
is bare chested — save for a large Gothic tattoo that covers most of his
skin. (It is painstakingly drawn on his chest before each performance.)
Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny as the Dutchman has the abs and the arms to make
this seduction convincing, although if this production had been staged in
Germany, and not Central New York, Zambello might have taken more risks. Still,
steam was coming off the bed.
Then Senta greets her sad sack, discarded boyfriend Erik, on this bed. He
almost convinces her to remain faithful. The Dutchman spies on this scene of
partial reconciliation and assumes Senta is like all the other women he’s met
in his endless wanderings and abandons her, returning once again to the sea.
Finally, on this bed Senta in despair commits suicide using a rope — a
second key image in this production.
Jay Hunter Morris as Erik and Melody Moore as Senta
Ropes are everywhere. They hang from scaffolding that frames the stage both
right and left. Sailors hang onto them for dear life to suggest the raging
storm that has delayed their return to Norway and to their girlfriends. They
pull on the ropes at the end of Act 1 to inflate the mast once a south wind has
In the spinning scene, the village girls each have ropes suspended from the
scaffolding to their laps. Rather than sew, they braid these ropes — often
using them erotically to suggest their own sexual frustration as they await the
return of their sailor-lovers.
The ropes also envelope Senta’s bed, as if they were bars to a jail she
will never leave alive.
The Heine legend says that the Dutchman’s cursed ship had blood-red sails.
Zambello’s lighting director Mark McCullough has suggested this through the
frequent use of a red spotlight on the Dutchman and with red backlighting for
the rigging of his ship. In the rigging one could see bodies — perhaps of the
women who had already lost their lives by being unfaithful to the Dutchman, or
perhaps of his ghostly crewmembers. Spooky it was. Had this been a Broadway
show, McCullough’s lighting throughout the production was worthy of
garnishing a Tony Award.
All of this was in service to a splendid cast that was strong from top to
bottom. Wagner’s score was sung as well as one is likely to hear it in a
house of this size (914 seats).
In the title role, McKinny was most effective when singing quietly, as when
he first tells Senta his sad story in Act 2. He is a bit light of voice for the
role, but this made sense given that he was portrayed as a young and ardent
captain, seemingly not much older than Senta. McKinny is a good actor, able to
make a real person of this mythical sailor.
Melody Moore was a sensational Senta. She hit all the exposed high notes of
her famous Ballad without scooping or straining, as if nailing the notes was no
big deal. She offered none of the blowzy singing that sometimes afflicts others
who sing this part. She delivered the role with both power and lyricism.
The role of Daland, Senta’s father, was sung heartily by Peter Volpe, who
has a cavernous but also agile bass voice. It was a clear contrast to the
lighter voice of the Dutchman. He captured the comic absurdity of this
money-grubbing father who is wiling to sell off his daughter to a rich,
mysterious captain of a ghost ship, ignoring that this Dutchman might not be
such a great son-in-law. Directors can’t do much with this character that
Wagner didn’t make explicit, and Volpe seems to have found just what the
Peter Volpe as Daland (left) and Adam Bielamowicz as the Steersman
Erik, Senta’s shunned boyfriend, is often played and sung as a wimp — as
if Don Ottavio had wandered out of Don Giovanni and into the wrong
opera. Not here. Jay Hunter Morris, who has sung Siegfried in both New York and
San Francisco (with Zambello) to great acclaim, assumed the role. He was
physically rough with Senta, no wimp at all. His voice was large for this house
and thrilling, if a bit nasal. His Act 3 aria, in which he begs Senta to stick
with him, was melting in its delivery. This was an Erik worthy of a forging
scene. A bit more Bellini-type vocalism would have helped (this is, after all,
an early Wagner work), but I’ll take it.
Glimmerglass Young Artist Adam Bielamowicz was a sympathetic steersman with
a tenor voice as clear as spring water. A second Young Artist, Deborah
Nansteel, was a most capable Mary, Senta’s nurse — a somewhat thankless
The men and women of the chorus sang and acted with polish. Conductor John
Keenan led a fleet performance — about as far from the classic, lumbering,
but celebrated Otto Klemperer EMI recording as one could get. Occasionally
balances were off and the brass and winds rode over the strings. After a
wonderful clarion opening from the horn in the overture, it was a hit or miss
afternoon for the brass section. But overall the orchestra acquitted itself
honorably. (This was the first time Glimmerglass has ever presented one of the
10 canonic Wagner operas.)
Oddly, Zambello chose to break the opera for an intermission at the point in
Act 2, when Senta first sees the Dutchman. In dramatic terms this makes sense,
since it leaves the audience wondering how she will react. It also splits the
opera into nearly two equal parts. But for those who know the score, it was
jarring. Wagner knew how to end his acts in slam-bang fashion, and this was not
it. I would have preferred either a single two-hour performance with no break,
or the three-act version with the endings Wagner wrote. But this is a small
Zambello’s reputation as a Wagner director was established, at least for
me, in her San Francisco “Eco-Ring.” This production of The Flying
Dutchman convinces me that she has a lot to say about this composer. She
saw, as The New Grove Dictionary of Opera suggests, that Wagner
identified with his “sexually unfulfilled protagonist.” This is a
production Wagner would recognize, and no doubt appreciate.
This review first appeared at CNY CafÈ Momus. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.
image_description=Ryan McKinny as the Dutchman [Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival]
product_title=Glimmerglass Festival’s ‘The Flying Dutchman’ a voyage to remember
product_by=A review by David Rubin
product_id=Above: Ryan McKinny as the Dutchman
Photos: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival