This 'Dutchman' Skirts Wagner's Shoals

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 17, 2008

Around the opera world, Wagner singing is in bad shape. The current "Tristan und Isolde" at the Metropolitan Opera has already been through two Tristans and two Isoldes in its first two performances. In light of this situation, the news from the Washington National Opera's new "The Flying Dutchman," which opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, is positive. Some of the singers demonstrated the problems of Wagner vocalism -- such as a tendency to bark -- but the two main roles, the Dutchman and Senta, were cast with people who could really sing. Things could be a lot worse.

Stephen Lawless's production itself has reappeared, like the Dutchman himself, after a term of seven years. It originated at the New York City Opera in September, 2001, when it was overshadowed by world events (its premiere was scheduled for Sept. 11), so it is nice to be able to reappraise it. Dark, with touches of red (for the Dutchman) and yellow (for the villagers' props), it represents a strange amalgam of realism (in its acting details) and clumsiness whenever Lawless gets too involved in the piece's symbolism.

Few things could be clumsier than the Dutchman's first entrance, an egregious waste of a powerful dramatic moment. While the orchestra thundered, he was trundled in suspended from his ship's stylized rigging (Giles Cadle designed the sets), quasi-crucified with lengths of red rope, under a sign saying "Verdammt" in Gothic script. He hung there lifelessly, looking less like a haunted specter in search of redemption through a woman's love than a display in a shop window at Barneys.

Fortunately, Alan Held was able to make something of the role, chiefly thanks to a lovely voice. His is not an altogether commanding presence, and his visual impact in his first monologue was further diminished by the decision of the costume designer, Ingeborg Bernerth, to cast him as a kind of Don Giovanni, with a rakishly open shirt that he only later covered in the requisite black coat. (In this production, the ghosts that eventually emerge from his ship are not his seamen, but the many woman who tried, and failed, to redeem him before Senta came along.) But Held justified his growing reputation as a Wagnerian: In a scene that is almost impossible to pull off, he prevailed thanks to legato singing and a refusal to bark.

Although Wagner wanted vocal beauty, many artists act as if the goal were to make sounds as big and loud, and even ugly, as possible. "Dutchman" particularly exposes the fatal flaws of this approach, since it is the closest to a conventional number opera of any Wagner opera in the repertory, and its melodies expose the weakness of a bark in short order.

Ian Storey, for example, recently acclaimed as Tristan at La Scala, was able to make respectable sounds as Erik, Senta's huntsman suitor, when called on to be big and imposing. But when he tried to sing lyrically, his voice became alarming in its gruff, strained hoarseness. As the Steersman, Andreas Conrad, making his company debut, also pushed his instrument to the brink of actual cracking. And Gidon Saks, playing up the buffo elements of Daland, initially fell into the barking trap as well, though he loosened up to reveal more mellow promise as the evening went on.

By contrast, Jennifer Wilson, as Senta, showed that beautiful singing was her top priority. This "Dutchman" marked a Cinderella WNO debut for Wilson, returning to a stage where she sang in the chorus for six seasons before embarking on what is shaping up to be a very nice international career. The buzz is deserved: If she isn't completely a knock-your-socks-off singer yet, she is an awfully good one, and she sings with a creamy, lyrical sound rather than trying to impress with the size of her voice. Indeed, I was initially a little worried about her top notes until it emerged that she was simply saving herself for a no-holds-barred conclusion, in which her high notes, if they didn't have the smoothness of the rest of her voice, sounded reasonably secure, and plenty big.

It was fortunate that she could give some drama to the end, because Lawless made the action deliberately anticlimactic: The villagers, rather than trying to restrain her from her suicidal leap, simply dispersed and left her alone onstage. Indeed, downplaying dramatic climaxes seemed to be this director's stock in trade. After Senta and the Dutchman's first encounter, the libretto has them staring raptly at each other -- but Lawless had Senta leave the stage and prepare him dinner. When the Hollander sings about finding love at last, he is standing over his meal, giving the impression that the way to his heart is through his stomach -- though one wonders, given his undead status, whether he actually eats.

Heinz Fricke and the orchestra gave a perfectly workmanlike reading that felt a little sluggish, with a few opening-night issues of coordinations at entrances. His leisurely tempi, at least, supported the singers -- showing an appreciation of the proper order of things, and a recognition of the best part of Saturday's performance.

The Flying Dutchman runs through April 10.

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