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Spinning an eerie sea yarn

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
10/22/2013 -  & October 26*, 31, November 3, 7, 12, 15, 2013
Richard Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer
Lisa Lindstrom (Senta), Greer Grimsley (the Dutchamn), Ian Storey (Erik), Kristin Sigmundsson (Daland), A.J. Gluecker (Steersman), Erin Johnson (Mary)
San Francisco Opera Chorus, Ian Robertson (chorus director), San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Patrick Summers (conductor)
Petrika Ionesco (director/set designer), Elkhannah Pulitzer (assistant director), Lili Kendaka (costume designer),Lawrence Pech (choreographer), Gary Marder (lighting designer), S. Katy Tucker (projection designer)

G. Grimsley & L. Lindstrom (Courtesy San Francisco Opera)

Considered Richard Wagner's first successful “music drama,” as he preferred to call his operatic compositions, Der fliegende Holländer is also briefer than later works and more accessible for listeners who are new to the groundbreaking composer/librettist. Here appear most aspects of Wagnerian language: the use of leitmotifs, consistent thematic unity of all operatic components, sophisticated musical texture, lush orchestration, and harbingers of extreme chromaticism and rapidly shifting tonal centers. The San Francisco Opera Company's co-production with Belgium’s Opéra de Wallonie is respectable and satisfying, although not a seminal rendition. The Company has had some casting and directorial adversities this season, but thanks to its robust supporting components – a first-rate chorus closely matched by its masterful orchestra and production crew – San Francisco audiences enjoy a smooth and enjoyable onstage panorama.

It is the fey but steadfast Senta driving this tale of a mythical sea wanderer, damned to eternal life unless he can find the woman whose faith will release him to eternal rest. Senta's unwavering constancy is sorely tested as the seemingly anxiety-ridden Dutchman unfairly perceives betrayal, leaving her no choice but to commit the ultimate sacrifice so that the evil spell is broken. Here is a situation with no good choices other than the salvation of the otherwise-doomed mariner.

American soprano Lise Lindstrom can craft a sublimely beautiful tone which more than compensates for an occasional weak dynamic in the lower tessitura (perhaps due to an announced respiratory infection). Ms. Lindstrom's characterization of Senta is conventionally played as a distant, absorbed idealist who effects her removal from a mundane provincial existence with fantasy. Her “Traft ihr das Schiff,” notoriously demanding, is pensively phrased, punctuated with those ethereal tones at this singer's disposal. Arguably Ms. Lindstrom is a soprano more lyric than dramatic, yet her interesting voice clearly encompasses both.

As the title character, bass/baritone Greer Grimsley distills the essence of the Dutchman with expressive bel canto singing that draws upon a full dynamic range. His voice is an excellent fit for Wagner's famously difficult melodies; also noted is Mr. Grimsley's excellent partnering with Ms. Lindstrom of the lovely “Wie aus der Ferne längst vergang’ner Zeiten”. Although Mr. Grimsley is quite experienced with this role, there is some room for improvement to his theatrical ability.

Adler Fellows Ian Storey and Erin Johnson make welcome reappearances. Mr. Storey possesses a supple tenor with sensitive nuance, creating a fine Erik as the spurned suitor. Ms. Johnson is an engaging mezzo-soprano who brings a suitable demeanor to the pragmatic Mary that is good contrast to Senta's fragile dreaminess. Daland, powered by the gifted bass Kristen Sigmundsson, perhaps draws upon his Icelandic heritage as reflected by his intimate knowledge of the terrible power of the sea. The salty captain also is quite prepared to drive a hard bargain for the hand of his pretty but fragile Senta. Daland's Steersman is convincingly portrayed by another Adlerian, tenor A.J. Gluecker. Mr. Gluecker brings a mysterious twist to this anomalous character, as though the Steersman is a deeper and more ambiguous entity than he seems at first glance.

The production cast is outstanding despite reported strife between the company’s general director David Gockley and the production’s director/set designer, Petrika Ionesco. With only days to go until performance, Mr. Gockley announced the removal of Mr. Ionesco, apparently due to creative differences. Among other changes, some 40 percent of the Belgian production's scenic pieces were removed, even though the set had been expanded for the larger San Francisco stage.

Lighting designer Gary Marder, together with projection designer S. Katy Tucker, deftly meet the particular challenges created by Holländer's invitation for special effects. This is a daunting job well done, especially with the persuasive simulated movement on open sea. Seventeen-year veteran choreographer Lawrence Pech produces excellent period folk dancing. Costume designer Lili Kendaka's diligent research authenticates the dress of the time.

Principal guest conductor Patrick Summers elicits splendid orchestral sound for a typically gorgeous but arduous Wagnerian score, and there are some superbly performed instrumental solos. Chorus director Ian Robertson seemingly never makes a misstep; the choristers are required to dance while they sing, even when delivering a rigorous counterpoint – which is vastly more formidable than one can imagine.

Senta's suicide is tragic, but fulfills the promised release of the Dutchman's curse. Theirs is a spiritual mating, as the story ends with the two largest orbs of the star-sprinkled heavens moving slowly toward each other and at last merging into one bright point.

Claudia K. Nichols



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