The Opera Company of Boston presented its new production of Wagner's "Flying Dutchman" at Wolf Trap on Saturday night to an audience that was delighted with the scenic wonders that unfolded before its eyes.
There was Daland's ship, in full sail at the end of act one, riding on a stormy sea. There was Senta's home with spinning wheels and looms going at full tilt. And in the last act, again a sailing vessel, fully equipped and manned, holding its own in a lightning- and thunder-filled storm.
The accuracy of the sailors up in the rigging was assured by the fact that three of them were signed up by the company from the U.S.S. Constitution, whose home is Boston Harbor. And if the spinning scenes looked authentic, you can thank an expert from the Gloucester Museum, who was onstage to keep an eye on the whole process.
The special effects were the work of Esquire Joachem, whose smoke, fire and stormy seas have added wondrously to the dramatic impact of the Boston troupe's engagement here. He was also the superb mime onstage working to have Lt. Pinkerton's house all ready long before the curtain went up on Friday night's "Madama Butterfly."
It is one of Sarah Caldwell's trademarks that she insists on having such details accurate and finds the people who can make them so. Hence the sailors climbing up and hanging the lanterns in act three of "Dutchman." The strong effect of the scenery was due to the vivid designs of David Sharir, with notable lighting by David Hemsley.
Caldwell is also known for her use of side stages, stairs and walkways in the houses where she plays, as well as for many other kinds of imaginative invention. Added to these gifts is her outstanding musicianship, which guarantees that what she plans and directs for the stage will be matched by the musical foundation the composers have provided. Thus Saturday's "Flying Dutchman" was musically as exciting as Wagner lets it be, beautifully played by the orchestra, and strongly sung by a solid cast with special impact from the men's chorus in the last act. Caldwell's command of the large score became more impressive as she moved through it.
Thomas Stewart as the Dutchman sang the taxing part with immense authority, filling his burnished voice with subtle nuances conveying the strange menace and longing that mingle in the role. William Wildermann was a sonorous Daland, with precisely the right kind and amount of humor.
The role of Senta needs a strong lyric soprano -- the dramatic Wagnerian singers who have sung it in the past have usually lacked precisely the lovely quiet sounds that make the role sympathetic. These were easily supplied by Arlene Saunders, who, from her opening ballad to her final declamation, was distinguished in her art.
Eunice Alberts made Mary a human being, fussy and bossy but never a stock figure. Her singing, as always, was warmed with exactly the right sounds. Vinson Cole was an exceptionally fine Steersman. Edward Sooter sang the thankless part of Erik strongly but without much to admire.