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Der Fliegende Hollander in Seattle

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It is a fair bet that at some point your mother told you "There is no such thing as a stupid question." As you have probably figured out by now, your mother was wrong.

It is the uniform custom of Speight Jenkins, the General Director of the Seattle Opera, to answer questions from audience members following performances. Usually the Wagner audiences in Seattle ask questions that are well informed (if a tad technical) but a rather remarkable question was posed to the generally unflappable Jenkins following last Saturday evening's performance of Der Fliegende Hollander: "What country," the questioner asked, "is the Dutchman from?" I suspect that only a rotator cuff injury recently sustained (causing Jenkins to have his left arm in a sling) prevented the General Director from walking over to the interrogator and beating him to a pulp with his bare hands.

There was, I suppose, a time when one could get away with presenting Der Fliegende Hollander as a sort of staged fairy tale with wooden characters, drop sets and $4.75 in props. Those days have passed. For this production, the Seattle Opera relied on the by now tried and true formula: First rate voices, a fine conductor, and an experienced team to handle the visuals.

The sea captain - and his crew - are forced to sail the seas endlessly at the express order of the Devil himself. But an angel of God provided him with an escape: Once every seven years the ship may make land and if he can find a woman who will be faithful to him unto death, he will be permitted to go to the land where he may anchor forever. Hardly one of Wagner's most involved or involving plots, and there is more that a bit of pedestrian music in it. But the undeniable fact is that when Wagner gets a fresh wind in his musical sails, the opera packs a stupendous punch. The musical evocations of tempest-tossed vessels happens to be my own mental soundtrack for every storm at sea I have ever encountered.

This production is set in Norway in 2007. Daland's ship is equipped with radar, radio and modern running lights. The crew is attired as a modern commercial fishing crew would be dressed. And when you stop and think about it, this makes sense. Indeed, it is the classic, "old fashioned" production that is at odds with the libretto. The Dutchman tells us that he has made his stops on land often, and there is nothing uniquely 19th Century about the setting. So when Daland's 2007 craft and crew are waiting out the storm, and the Dutchman's ship - a 16th Century square-rigger (it may be a caravella redonda for all I know) heaves into view - the effect is electrifying. It is a coup de theatre of a sort rarely seen in major opera houses. But is the sort of thing that set designer Thomas Lynch and director Stephen Wadsworth have done time and again in Seattle.

One can argue convincingly that this is an opera populated by stock figures, not by flesh and blood human beings. Daland is the sea captain who will do anything for a kroner; his daughter Senta the girl obsessed by the picture and story of the Flying Dutchman; Erik the ardent if dim-witted suitor. These are not "people" these are moving masks. Thus, pretty much all of the elements of Greek Tragedy are there, ripe for a talented director to play with. And mercy, does Stephen Wadsworth have a ball.

Jane Eaglen is in one of her large phases these days. Costume designer Dunya Ramicova can clothe her with imagination and skill, but no amount of tailoring can mask the fact that Ms. Eaglen is a very ample woman who moves with the agility of the HMS Insolent steaming out of Portsmouth. So very quickly - and very sensitively - Wadsworth sucks all the elements of physical attraction out of the relationship between Senta and the Dutchman. The Dutchman wants her faithfulness unto death; he does not want a romp in the hay with her. Faithfulness unmoored from sex and from even the undertone of sex is, in this case, ennobling. And although Ms. Eaglen may be the anti-Netrebko in the glamour department, her singing and vocal production are flawless. Although she no longer conveys the sense of being able to sing an entire Gotterdammerung and, following the restoration of the gold to the Rhine Maidens, suggest "Let's take it from the top, shall we boys?" she's got more than enough horsepower for this role start to finish.

For decades now, James Morris has been the Wagnerian bass-baritone of choice at The Met. Likewise, Greer Grimsley is the reigning Wagner bass-baritone in Seattle. Advantage Seattle. When he sang Wotan in 2005 in Seattle's Ring, Grimsley was still learning the unique art of Wagner singing. Two years ago the voice was there, but the nuance was still a ways off and the temptation then was to resolve difficulties by simply singing more forcefully. The suavity and the depth that were not quite there in 2005 have now fully arrived. He seems to still be of the "takes direction well" school of stagecraft, but the potential is, I think, very much there for him to become a first rate singing actor with time. It should suffice for me to remark that he was simply heart-breaking as the Dutchman, and he was capable of going note for note with Jane Eaglen in some of Wagner's most competitive singing.

In Der Fliegende Hollander there are two stars and four also-rans, but casting the "also rans" with singers of low quality is a recipe for disaster. That particular shoal was neatly avoided here. Luretta Bybee (Mrs. Grimsley in real life) made far more of the role of Mary than is generally encountered, and Jay Hunter Morris was a suitably passionate Erik. It is a tough and exposed role, and Morris sang it beautifully. Jason Collins's work as the Steersman showed a sweet voice and boundless talent but little more - no surprise, really, in that he is a very young man at the earliest stages of his career. Daniel Sumegi managed all of the notes as Daland, but it is impossible to make much of an impression in that role under any circumstances.

Special praise needs to be heaped on conductor Asher Fisch - and in horse doctor's doses. For all of its power and visceral impact, Der Fliegende Hollander is a tough score to handle. A conductor needs to highlight the foreboding without being ponderous, he needs to dispatch the less than inspired moments quickly without upsetting the pace, and he needs to keep things moving without rushing. All while allowing his singers adequate room and keeping the tension at one step short of intolerable. He does it, and he kept the Seattle Opera Orchestra with him every step of the way. Could it be that a genuine successor to Karl Bohm has at last been found?

There are elements of this production that still have me scratching my head. I remain uncertain as to exactly what the Second Act set is intended to convey besides the Sweatshop of Dr. Caligari and I remain mystified why one of the young women is walking around with two six packs of Heineken (to make the Dutchman feel at home, perhaps?) when Ballard Bitter would have been the better choice for discerning Norwegians everywhere. And the means of Senta's apotheosis did not - at least for me - have the impact that it might have. But these are, withal, quibbles - small warts on an otherwise wholly successful production. I cannot tell you how much I am looking forward to seeing it again on August 14th.

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