In 2010, Eric Owens sang Alberich in the Met’s “Das Rheingold” and leapt to a new level of international attention — and expectation. That expectation, he said in an interview last year, has sometimes been a little hard to deal with. So I was particularly curious to see his role debut as “The Flying Dutchman” at the Washington National Opera on Saturday night — only the second major Wagner role he’s actually attempted, and coming shortly after he had to cancel a scheduled concert of jazz standards, also for WNO, due to illness.
Happily, he delivered the goods.
“Dutchman” is a little high for Owens’s voice, as he’s the first to admit, and he opted not to sustain some of the role’s higher climactic notes. He also, under pressure, has a tendency to sing with a kind of vibrato that makes it sound as if he’s singing between two notes. But for the most part, his sound was clear and straight and honest. Even better, he approached the part with the sensitivity of a Lied singer, focusing not only on making as big a sound as possible, but scaling back in response to the words to imbue the Dutchman with a wistful tenderness. The result was a powerful and deeply felt performance.
WNO is actually on a bit of a roll this spring, in good ways and bad. This “Dutchman,” coming after “Dialogues of the Carmelites” (which has one more performance on Tuesday), is another opera with a very respectable cast of singers. Christiane Libor is not a name I knew, but her company debut as Senta showed her to be a strong dramatic soprano with the melodious instincts to do justice to Wagner’s most conventionally melodic opera.
Jay Hunter Morris made his own WNO debut as Erik, a role he sang at Glimmerglass in 2013 but sang much better here. He clearly subscribes to the nasal school of Wagnerian vocal production (articulated by the tenor Gary Lakes, who once said of his singing, “I put it in my nose and make it as ugly as I can get it”), but his sound was big and far more even and in line than it was in 2013. And while I was initially concerned about the Estonian bass Ain Anger, he ended up singing the role of Daland with a lot more ease than his strained and barky first scene indicated. Michael Brandenburg, a member of the Domingo-Cafritz program, was a fine, coltish Steersman.
Strong singing doesn’t always make up for an iffy production. In the case of “Carmelites,” I felt it didn’t; in the case of “Dutchman,” I felt it did. And yet this production by Stephen Lawless, last seen here in 2008, is, objectively speaking, worse. Where “Carmelites” is polished and elegant, this “Dutchman” is hokey, with its primary-color palette, its awkwardly stylized movements for the chorus, and its unfortunate handling of the opera’s obvious climaxes. In my 2008 review, I compared the Dutchman’s entrance, suspended as if crucified from the ship’s rigging, to a display in a department-store window; I believe the entrance was somewhat modified this time round, but it still had a cartoon-like quality. (My eyes must have gotten worse since 2008, since I could no longer make out the writing on the sign suspended over the Dutchman’s head; according to my 2008 review, it says “Verdammt,” damned, just in case anyone missed the point.)
Indeed, the entire production appears to be in figurative air quotes, with everything possible employed to distance the viewer from the action — starting with the first scene, which plays out way at the back of the stage, with acres of empty space between the audience and the sailors, and ending with the last bars, when Senta is abruptly and inexplicably left alone on an empty stage to enact her final suicide. There may have been great symbolism to this, but the director failed to make anybody care.
There was a redeeming feature, though: the conducting. In the hands of Philippe Auguin, the Washington National Opera Orchestra sounded suddenly much better and more focused than it did on opening night of “Carmelites” two weeks ago. If the musicians couldn’t always fully fill out the emotional contours of the overture, this was, by and large, an assured performance, demonstrating that good music-making, in the right hands, can overcome the deficits of an indifferent production.
“The Flying Dutchman” continues for six more performances, through March 21, with a few cast changes on March 11, 19 and 21.