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Estranged Together

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
04/23/2010 -  & 26, 30*, May 3, 6, 10, 14, 2010
Richard Wagner: Der Fliegende Holländer
Deborah Voigt (Senta), Juha Uusitalo (The Dutchman), Stephen Gould (Erik), Hans-Peter König (Daland), Russell Thomas (Steersman)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Kazushi Ono (Conductor)
August Everding (Production), Hans Schavernoch (Set Design), Lore Haas (Costume Design), Gil Wechsler (Lighting Design) and Stephen Pickover (Stage Direction)

J. Uusitalo and H.-P. Konig (© Cory Weaver)

After his experiments with the Italian and French styles, Wagner found his own unique voice in Der Fliegende Holländer, which he conducted at its premiere in Dresden in 1843. The story was probably inspired by a tale by Heinrich Heine, from which the composer stripped all traces of the poet’s characteristic irony. Clearly, Wagner took the notion of a woman’s redemptive sacrifice to save the life (and the soul) of a man extremely seriously. Also in the gestational mix, with respect to the music and the location, was Wagner’s experience on a sea voyage that took him to a Norwegian fjord. The raw power of the sea is magnificently evoked by the sheer size of the orchestra, the orchestration, and the relentless drive of the music. This, the first of Wagner’s operas to enter the mainstream repertoire, fully deserves its place.

Der Fliegende Holländer was first heard at the Met in 1889. Since then, the house has presented the opera graced with an extraordinary pantheon of singers. The Met’s Dutchmen have included Hans Hotter (in his house debut), George London, José Van Dam and James Morris. Among its Sentas, were Flagstad, Rysanek, Behrens and Stemme. It’s been ten years since this opera was last seen at the Met. And it’s been missed.

This richly evocative production by August Everding, which premiered in 1989, mixes the everyday world of Daland, his crew, and the women of the village, with the eerie and demonic ambience inhabited by the Dutchman and his crew of lost souls. The bridge between the two worlds is the psychologically fascinating Senta, who emerges as the archetypal “Ewig Weibliche” (eternal feminine) who, when we meet her, seems to be marking time in her commonplace village life, awaiting her role in a larger metaphysical drama, a role which she sees as her destiny.

Everding’s production premiered in 1989 and was most recently revived in 2000. It is generally dark and forbidding, opening on the ice-encrusted deck of Daland’s ship. The looming and rather claustrophobic cliffs resemble icebergs. Much of the action takes place in the lee of the gigantic prow of the Dutchman’s ship, a threatening spectral presence, looming over all. The sets in Acts 1 and 3 force the singers downstage. The resulting physical constraints on the characters create a sense of their being caught in the inescapable workings of fate. In contrast, the set in Act 2 is somewhat brighter and less oppressive, symbolizing the daylight, mundane world of the village, where Senta and her friends sit and spin. Senta’s ardent but very earnest and earthbound suitor, Erik, a denizen of this daylight world, is no match for Senta’s fantasy (which became a reality when the Dutchman appears on the scene) of the tormented, very romantic hero whose soul she can save through her sacrifice.

In her Met role debut as Senta, Deborah Voigt sang with a darkly colored rounded tone in her middle range, clear diction, and a powerful voice that soared easily above the orchestra. She created a convincing portrait of an intense young woman living almost completely in the world of her own obsession, alienated and distracted in her interactions with her community and loved ones. Indeed, her characterization was so convincing that even the entrance of her longed-for Dutchman seemed to be a mere continuation of her inner life. Ms. Voigt will sing Brünnhilde opposite Bryn Terfel’s Wotan in next season’s Die Walküre, the second installment of the Met’s new Ring. Both Das Rheingold and Die Walküre will be broadcast worldwide in HD.

Juha Uusitalo’s tormented Dutchman was a brooding and somewhat unsettling presence whenever he was on stage. Portraying a character who was never far from the edge of despair, he made the Dutchman’s mistrust and readiness to abandon all hope believable He conveyed the depths of suffering of the eternal outsider. He was particularly affecting in Act 3, when the Dutchman wrongly believes that Senta has betrayed him. There was, however, a dryness in his voice and a lack of the requisite power, particularly when he sang at the higher end of his range.

The greedy and gregarious Daland of stentorian bass Hans-Peter König, was the true standout of the evening. König was always full of personality. He sang with clear resonance throughout his range, and his rich lower notes were especially satisfying. And he sang, as Wagner surely intended, with an Italianate line, never sacrificing the beauty of sound for power, which he had to spare. His diction was superb, every word understandable. Basses of his vocal caliber are rather thin on the ground. He’s an exceptional talent, vocally as well as dramatically. And he displayed a gift for comedy. His interactions with his hapless steersman were particularly entertaining. Despite his professed love of his daughter, Daland is unable to see either her fragile mental state, or the effect of the Dutchman upon it. As portrayed by König, there was a real poignancy about Daland’s obtuseness. König made his Met debut earlier this season as Sarastro. There too, he was marvelous. He fully conveyed the priest’s dignity and authority, and his gorgeous deep bass voice resounded throughout the house. His dramatic and vocal range are huge. Next season, he will appear as Fafner and then Hunding in the Met’s new Ring.

Stephen Gould made his Met debut as the simple stalwart Erik, voiced with a large voice and clear ringing tones. His humble and rather humdrum huntsman obviously stood no chance of wooing Senta’s affections back from the romantically compelling Dutchman, and Gould made plain his hurt and confusion. Russell Thomas, seen earlier this season as Foresto in Attila, was a delight as the Steersman, singing with ringing top notes, secure power, shining tone, and a fine legato line. He provided comic touches that relieved the dark brooding drama, throwing it into sharp contrast. His interactions with König’s Daland in the first act were the most human moments in the opera. They shared a working camaraderie that evaporated when the Dutchman appeared, and Daland turned inward consumed by his dreams of wealth.

The Met chorus was in excellent form, contributing much of the energy and momentum of the evening. Their portrayal of the sailors celebrating their homecoming with their sweethearts brought the village to full life. We felt their generous and playful spirit as they first lured the Steersman from his watch, and then attempted to share their joy with the Dutchman’s ghostly crew. After a clash between the forces of life and the forces of death and despair, the townsfolk simply moved the party elsewhere, suffering no defeat.

Even given a superb orchestra, such as James Levine’s finely-honed ensemble, much of the dramatic impact of this splendid score depends on the skill of the conductor. Alas, Kazushi Ono was an unfortunate disappointment in the pit. He led the orchestra in a performance of flattened textures and homogenized sound from which the occasional leitmotif was hard pressed to escape. Under his baton, the music lacked the required drive that embodied, for Wagner, both the power of the sea and the relentlessness of fate. Instead there was often a pervasive listlessness. Ono often left the singers poorly supported, and occasionally he simply drowned them out. His performance also suffered from a general lack of coordination with the stage. The most egregious example of this occurred during the Act 3 face-off of the two male choruses – the villagers on one side and the Dutchman’s phantom crew on the other. The Met Orchestra deserved better. In contrast, everyone was well-served by Gil Wechsler, the Met’s veteran lighting designer, who marvelously evoked the ever-shifting planes of reality. His illumination of the ship of lost souls and its cursed crew was simply stunning.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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