Canadian Opera Company’s Flying Dutchman is the win they needed right now
Johan Reuter bass-baritone; Marjorie Owens, sop.; Franz-Josef Selig, double bass; Christopher Ventris, age ten.; Miles Mykkanen, age ten.; Rosie Aldridge, mezzo. Johannes Debus, ed. ; COC Orchestra and Chorus. Four Seasons Center, October 7, 2022
After three seasons of canceled and truncated performances amid the pandemic, the Canadian Opera Company has opened its 2022-23 season – hopefully a full season, COVID God willing – with a revival of Wagner The Flying Dutchman. This striking production by Christopher Alden with sets by Allen Moyer first premiered in 1996. It was an unorthodox take on Wagner’s opera and as a result received a decidedly mixed reaction to the ‘era.
In three subsequent revivals (2000, 2010, and now 2022), the production has undergone various subtle changes. The white face makeup and inmate uniform of Dutchman, portrayed by Richard Paul Fink in 1996, is gone. In fact, the global concentration camp trappings have been mitigated. What has remained unchanged is the unitary set that fills the entire stage, a double raked wooden crate, with openings to allow entry and exit.
With a decidedly expressionistic portrayal of the Dutchman highlighted before the curtain even rises, the production has a dark and sinister atmosphere. Even the “funny” scenes have a rather macabre feel to the proceedings. While the set of stationary units makes scene changes less than ideal and will likely confuse those unfamiliar with the story, the closed sides of the set force the voices forward into the auditorium, which which makes all singers huge.
For me, the main pleasure of Dutch is the magnificent score. This revival has special significance, as this opera was conductor Johannes Debus’ first assignment as the COC’s new Music Director in 2010. I cannot claim to remember what his conducting was like 12 years ago, except to say that the dozen years that have passed have undoubtedly contributed to his artistic growth. On Friday, he led the COC forces in a beautifully paced reading of the score, with just the right mix of power, beauty, lyricism and nuance. The sound coming out of the pit was exceptional. It was a performance to savor.
For those unfamiliar with the story, here is a brief summary. The Dutch sailor is doomed to sail the seven seas for eternity, only allowed to disembark one day every seven years in search of a woman who will redeem him with her unconditional love – talk about a romantic patriarchal concept redemption! The Dutchman rewards Daland, a sea captain, with untold riches in exchange for his daughter Senta’s hand in marriage. But the jealous Erik, in love with Senta, ruins everything and Senta ends up sacrificing himself for the Dutchman’s redemption.
The COC has assembled a fine ensemble for the occasion. Four of them make a welcome return to the company. Danish bass-baritone Johan Reuter, Wotan in Die Marcheyou are (2015), offered a sympathetic Dutchman and sang with a rich, robust tone. American soprano Marjorie Owens, Turandot in 2019, impressed with her big, focused spinto sound, powerful top and vocal stamina, albeit with a more pronounced flutter than I remembered. Congratulations to American tenor Miles Mykkanen, last heard in The Nightingale and other short fables (2018), like a wonderful Steuermann. German bass Franz-Josef Selig, King Marke in the 2013 Tristan and Isoldasang Daland with a huge, imposing bass, despite some incipient instability in his tone.
The remaining two cast members are new to the COC. British mezzo Rosie Aldridge has made a promising debut as Mary. Her performance was quite good, and she didn’t need some of the silly emotional tasks assigned to her character – why the hell would Mary hold the Dutchman’s portrait in what seemed like a crazy dance?
The second debutant was British tenor Christopher Ventris, whom I first heard as Clemente in Hans Werner Henze Venus and Adonis in Santa Fe in 2000. His handsome lyrical tenor has held up well over the next 22 years, now with added dramatic weight. Rumor had it that he was originally hired to sing Parsifal, his star role. It was postponed sine die, in its place is this Dutch. Ventris made the most of Erik’s thankless role, made even more unsympathetic in this production as he takes down Senta.
Wagner gave the chorus of The Flying Dutchman some of the most amazing music to sing, and the success of this work rests as much on the choir as it does on the principals and orchestra. A big shout out to the COC choir for a very good performance, all the more remarkable considering the reduced rehearsal time due to a rumored COVID scare.
Curious oddity: there was an unexpected intermission, “unexpected” since the program did not indicate any. Just before the Dutch-Senta duo, the music stopped, the stage went dark and the curtain fell. For a brief moment, I thought it was another medical emergency, like La Traviata last May. Apparently a late decision was made to add an intermission, perhaps to help COVID-weary audiences sit nearby for long periods of time. Seems pointless to me, but given that the opera audience is of a certain age, I’m sure some of them enjoyed a bathroom break.
As I sat there with the amazing Wagner score engulfing me, I couldn’t help but think how wonderful it was to be back and hearing great music again. live and in person. Whether you are a fervent Wagnerian or simply a music lover, this revival of The Flying Dutchman well worth the experience. Six other performancesOctober 9, 13, 15, 19, 21 and 23.
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