‘The Flying Dutchman’ (‘Der Fliegende Holländer’) at Washington National Opera

The Washington National Opera takes to the seas for Richard Wagner’s first major work, The Flying Dutchman (Der Fliegende Holländer). WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello has staged a series of his operas to prepare for the WNO’s first complete Ring cycle next season. The 2015-2016 season has just been announced.

This production, a WNO revival, is heavy on symbolism and big sound with a cast of Wagnerian powerhouses, which makes for a night of high drama and fun. Wagner wrote both the music and libretto for this opera that debuted in 1843. The opera is sung in German with English surtitles.

Doomed to roam the seas aboard the Flying Dutchman, Eric Owens’s ghostly captain searches for a love to break the curse and allow him to finally be at peace. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Doomed to roam the seas aboard the Flying Dutchman, Eric Owens’s ghostly captain searches for a love to break the curse and allow him to finally be at peace. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Wagner was in a tight spot when he started on this piece. Broke and fleeing poor reviews on the continent, he travelled to London on a nightmare sea voyage that first gave him the inspiration to put the old myth of a sailor doomed to wander the sea and redeemed by love to music.

Wagner has never been known for subtlety and Director Stephen Lawless takes full advantage of the high melodrama, staging many moments of the opera – particularly between the Dutchman and his love Senta – for maximum effect. He’s helped by a set by Giles Cadle that successfully transitions from ship to ship to shore with a moving backdrop that really does make it seem like they’re on the sea. The blood-red sails of the Dutchman’s ship are conjured by the lighting design of Joan Sullivan-Genthe. The costumes by Ingeborg Berneth add to the symbolism with blacks and whites and creative dresses for the Dutchman’s former wives throughout the centuries.

At the helm is Eric Owens (The Dutchman), a frequent WNO performer and two-time Grammy winning opera star in his role debut. He does not disappoint; his commanding stage presence and voice fills the theater from his fist moment on stage for his tortured aria, “Die Frist ist um, und abermals verstrichen” (The time is up, and to Eternity’s tomb consign’d).

In her WNO debut, Christiane Libor (Senta) tackles this challenging soprano role in her native German and can hold her own with Owens. Her voice is so sweet and she brings such emotion to each aria like “Traft ihr das Schiff” (There sails a ship). Together, they are unstoppable for the central duet of the piece, “Wie aus der Ferne längst vergang’ner Zeiten” (Like to a vision, seen in days long by gone).

One fun thing about Wagner is that the supporting cast can dig into meaty roles as well like Daland (Ain Anger). He has a resonant voice well suited to the role of captain and the acting chops to pull off dubious moral choices as he basically sells his daughter for money on arias like “Mögst Du, mien Kind” (Welcome bid him).

Jay Hunter Morris (Erik) plays the voice of reason as he tries to stop his love from going off with the Dutchman in his heartfelt aria “Willst jenes Tags Du nicht’ (Is that fair day no more). Michael Brandenburg (The Steersman) sings “Mit Gewitter ind Sturm” (In tempest’s roar) in a beautiful tenor and gives the audience a common man to root for.  He is currently in the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.

The cast of 'The Flying Dutchman.' Photo by Scott Suchman.
The cast of ‘The Flying Dutchman.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

Jennifer Root (Senta) and Alan Held (Dutchman) will take the roles on March 11. Peter Volpe (Daland) will perform on March 19 and 21.

A large chorus joins them onstage. The men are sailors who turn running a ship in a storm into a dance and sound great on “Steuermann, lass die Wacht!” known as the Norweigen Sailor’s Chorus, which was actually one of the first songs Wager composed for the opera. The women are featured on the clever “Summ und brumm, du guts Rädchen” (Hum and buzz! What cheerful sound!). They stitch away and tease Senta for her hopeless crush on a ghost, who of course, turns up in the next scene.

There is no better composer for painting pictures with sound and Conductor Phillippe Auguin seems to revel in the music from the very first blast of horns of the Dutchman’s leitmotif. The orchestra thrives on these big, emotional numbers and I cannot wait for the Ring next year. They’re clearly at home with Wagner’s dramatic scores.

It is a pity that opera has a reputation as stuffy, high-culture, or tough to understand, because The Flying Dutchman is a dramatic, ghostly story of love and obsession with a fabulous score and a cast of over-the-top characters that is just so much fun to watch. The WNO capitalizes on all of this with strong performances and a superior orchestra, enhanced by every element of the design. The Flying Dutchman is a delightful treat for eyes and ears.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with no intermission. 

The Flying Dutchman plays through March 21st 2015 at the Washington National Opera performing in the Kennedy Center Opera House -2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or 1-800-444-1324, or purchase them online.

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