An unsettling Der fliegende Holländer opens the new season at Lyric Opera of Chicago

United StatesUnited States Wagner, Der fliegende Holländer: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Lyric Opera of Chicago / Enrique Mazzola (conductor). Civic Opera House, Chicago, 23.9.2023. (JLZ)

Tamara Wilson (Senta) and Melody Wilson (Mary) © Todd Rosenberg

Director – Christopher Alden
Sets and Costumes – Allen Moyer
Lighting – Anne Militello
Wigs and Makeup – Sarah Hatten
Chorus director – Michael Black

Daland – Mika Kares
Steersman – Ryan Capozzo
The Dutchman – Tomasz Konieczny
Mary – Melody Wilson
Senta – Tamara Wilson
Erik – Robert Watson

Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its 2023–2024 season with a production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer that originated with the Canadian Opera Company in 2022. The performance of the three acts without intermission added to the musical drama implicit in Wagner’s score and is true to his original intentions, but the concept of the production was at times at odds with the work’s style. While it is customary to point to the work of Heinrich Heine for the archetypal Flying Dutchman, director Christopher Alden explains his perspective on the character in the program notes:

‘The Dutchman in our production is a stand-in for The Wandering Jew of myth, restlessly traveling through time and space, searching for a safe harbor. And our Senta is a rebel against her closed community, identifying with the plight of the outcast and fixated on a piece of Entartete Kunst – degenerate art. The introduction of Holocaust imagery in this production was born from Allen Moyer’s and my desire to confront head-on the unholy connection between Wagner’s art and the specters of Fascism and Antisemitism … The example of Entartete Kunst in this production is the portrait of the Dutchman with affinities to Edvard Munch’s Der Schrei (1893) that was prominent on the curtain before the performance began. The image gains prominence in the latter part of the prelude as Tamara Wilson stares at it while a dumbshow reveals the spectral captain and his crew, and the Dutchman displays a folded bridal. The portrait becomes a stronger part of the stage action in the second act, where it properly is part of Wagner’s stage directions.’

In this production, the painted image becomes an artefact that suggests a universal obsession with the image itself, rather than a reminder of the ill-fated captain, as various characters react to the art and carry it about the stage. This obsessiveness distracts from the narrative, and the moving object interrupts the musical elements of the opera. It distorts the libretto in various ways, as does the visual cue of a bridal veil (or its absence) to denote the bond between the Dutchman and Senta.  The stage gestures in Act II were similarly questionable. The worst was Senta’s open-arm gesture while getting to know the Dutchman, which resulted in gales of laughter. (This is a detail that should be have been caught in rehearsal.)

The ultimate unity of the pair through Senta’s promise to be faithful to the Dutchman until death culminates in Erik shooting Senta just before the music that should indicate the transcendent love that is crucial to Wagner’s work. The shooting itself is jarring, like the sudden execution of the title character in Lyric Opera’s production of La clemenza di Tito several seasons past, and it is unfortunate they did not include a disclaimer about the depiction of violence in Der fliegende Holländer.

Mika Kares’s Daland was inspired and gave the role the depth that Wagner composed for it. Commanding when needed, sensitive at other times, even conniving as he pushes the idea of marriage on his daughter, Kares was a consummate Wagnerian in articulating the lines clearly. The melismas that some performers elide had full voice with Kares, and he defined the role with authority and conviction.

(l-r) Tomasz Konieczny (Dutchman), Tamara Wilson (Senta), Mika Kares (Daland) and Melody Wilson (Mary) © Todd Rosenberg

Tomasz Konieczny is esteemed in many houses for the role of the Dutchman, and he gave a solid performance here. At times various elements were understated, as with the line ‘Die Frist ist um’ that starts the clock for the ghost captain to find salvation before his existence suspends for another seven years of unresolved hell.  Konieczny’s best moments were in the duets with others, in the scenes with Kares or Tamara Wilson. It was gratifying to hear the intensity Konieczny brought to the final act as his resonant voice filled the stage with the character’s passion.

Tamara Wilson did well in the part of Senta, and her final scene was remarkably vivid vocally. It showed her facility with range and volume, and the nuances in line that are clearly in the score were audible and effective in her execution. The famous ballad in which we first hear Senta seemed affected, because of the soft and quiet sounds that were part of the first two strophes. The resolve in her fervent and determined voice for the third stanza came as a surprise, but it was nonetheless welcome, and it revealed the powerful voice that would embody the role in the remainder of the opera.

Melody Wilson played Mary, and her voice shows the promise that will emerge in other, bigger roles. Robert Watson revealed an appealing voice with dimensions not brought out in this production’s depiction of Erik. Ryan Capozzo was a fine Steersman, and his attractive tenor warrants attention.

Michael Black’s fine leadership was evident in the clear and precise performance of the sometime raucous choral scenes. It is unfortunate that the production did not place the ‘real’ ship and the ‘ghost’ ship on the left and right of the stage right to make the most of the stereophonic effects possible in Wagner’s score. Putting the two ships horizontally on the stage also affected the choral sound with the overly loud stomping that the director used for the women’s chorus in Act II and the bridal celebration that opens the third. Those aural gestures can be effective when supporting the music rather than obscuring it.

With the orchestra too, the cliches of fast-and-loud or slow-and-quiet occurred too often. The woodwind timbres in the prelude and Act I seemed thin and were overshadowed by the low strings and brass. At times the brass also needed focus. While pitch was not a problem, weaknesses in intonation detracted from the resonance in several cadences, and no doubt Enrique Mazzola’s leadership will address these matters in subsequent performances.

All in all, the production fell short it comes to a convincing presentation of this important early opera by Wagner. Perhaps it will take another seven or so years for Der fliegende Holländer to return to Lyric’s stage, and maybe the ‘Erlösung’ that makes this work memorable will be part of the new production.

James L. Zychowicz

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