Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

Opera Warhorses random header image

A Second Look: Lehnhoff’s Production of “Flying Dutchman” at Los Angeles Opera – March 24, 2013

March 27th, 2013

My colleague Tom Rubbert had reviewed the first Los Angeles performance of this production earlier in the month [Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” Sails into Los Angeles, Making a Terrific Splash – L. A. Opera, March 9, 2013] while I was reviewing operas on the opposite coast.

I had seen the production nine years ago at the San Francisco Opera, so this is my second look at this production and, as well, this website’s second review of its Los Angeles mounting.

Although this was only the fourth performance, it marked the third time in which there was a cast change. At opening night, the Senta, Portuguese soprano Elisabete Matos had to withdraw moments before the performance began from illness.

Fortunately, seven days of rest had been scheduled between the first and second performances and Ms Matos was able to sing the next three performances.

But in this performance the Erik, Corey Bix (who himself had replaced another artist at a late date before rehearsals began) was indisposed and replaced by John Pickle. (Before the posting of this review, the Los Angeles Opera announced that Jay Hunter Morris would portray Erik in the final two performances.)

A Year of Dutchmen

As it happens, I am scheduled to review four different productions of “Dutchman” in the Wagner Year of 2013. I also am planning a retrospective on the brilliant or infamous (depending on one’s biases) 1975 Jean-Pierre Ponnelle “Dutchman” production for the San Francisco Opera.

So, it was propitious that my year of “Dutchman” began with the pre-performance lecture of Conductor James Conlon.

For this Sunday matinee, Conlon’s audience likely exceeded the 1,500 persons that the Los Angeles Opera has come to expect for these extraordinarily popular benefits for any ticket-holder to a Conlon-conducted operatic performance. Virtually every seat was filled, with patrons standing on all three upper levels of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s lobby areas.

[Below: Conductor James Conlon, at the podium in the center of the mezzanine level, delivers his pre-performance lecture on “The Flying Dutchman” to a large audience at three levels; resized image, based on a Nancy L. Burnett photograph.]


Los Angeles is one of the world’s great centers for the performing arts, with the film and television industries an omnipresent force in the local economy, as well as an important source of patrons for the Los Angeles Opera.

Conlon always would be appreciated in Los Angeles as the Opera’s music director and star conductor. His lectures, however, have given him a superstar status in this community that cherishes its superstars.

As a result of the Conlon lectures, it is quite possible that no audience worldwide is as attuned to the key structures within opera as those of Los Angeles. Conlon constantly reminds his attentive audiences as to the meaning of particular keys to Mozart, or Beethoven, or Wagner. “The overture begins in D minor, and you know what that means. Remember what we talked about in “Don Giovanni” last fall?”

[Note from William: such Hollywood film composers as Hans Zimmer are also drawn to particular keys. Perhaps Conlon should note that both Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” and Zimmer’s score for Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean”, with its multiple references to Wagner’s opera, prominently use D Minor.]

Our lecturer, in white tie and tails, finished, rushed off to the door to the administrative offices and a quarter hour later emerged at the podium. Soon we were immersed in the symphonic seascape that is the “Dutchman” overture.

We recall the words of the lecture we just heard. “The overture begins with an open fifth. Remember, we won’t know if it’s a major or minor chord until we hear the middle note.”

Creating a “Dutchman” Puzzle Box

There was a time, before I began attending this opera, that it was presented in three acts with two intermissions. A practical reason, beyond the expectation of audiences that they would not sit in a darkened theater for two and a half hours without a break, is that Wagner’s stage directions call for the first and third scenes to be two different rocky seashores harboring Daland’s and the Dutchman’s ships and that the middle scene be the interior of Daland’s house.

However, if one wishes to perform the opera without intermissions – or long pauses where the audience sits in the dark – there has to be a way to change from an exterior to an interior and then back to an exterior setting.

The most practical solution is to build a unit set that somehow can accommodate these very different scenes. I call such a unit set a “puzzle box” and have noted that some can be quite difficult to defend – see Vargas, Podles Brilliant in Puzzle Box “Ballo”: Houston – November 2, 2007.

In his 1975 production, Ponnelle created a unit set that brought all the opera’s action onto the deck of Daland’s ship. Ponnelle used the inherent surreality of the opera’s story to account for the presence of a women’s chorus operating spinning wheels on the deck of a sailing ship.

Ponnelle cast the entire story as the Steerman’s dream. Within the context of his dream, there was a congruity in placing all of the opera’s elements on Daland’s ship.

Three decades later, Lehnhoff utilized the idea of a basic set representing Daland’s deck. Lehnhoff employed an idea, still fashionable in Germany, in which the large steel structures of the industrial world provide the setting of 19th century stories.

The ribs of Daland’s ship are massive structures riveted together, the Steerman’s deck a factory catwalk allowing constant inspection of the men working below. The Dutchman’s ship is never seen, but is represented by a blue propeller-like opening to some alternative world.

[Below: Daland’s ship, with the propeller-like representation of the Dutchman’s ship at the rear; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


Senta’s women are factory hands, whose very clothing incorporates metal hoops.

When Matos’ Senta, transfixed by the Dutchman’s portrait (actually, the outline of the Dutchman’s head and hat on the front scrim) fails to participate in the Spinning Chorus (that Conlon in his lecture nicknames “Whistle While You Work”), Ronnita Nicole Miller’s Mary shows her disdain for Senta’s slacking off. We expect that Senta’s wages will be docked.

[Below: the factory in which the women spin yarn; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


In the final scenes, Daland’s sailors, in their fantastical Andrea Schmidt-Futterer costumes, carouse on deck. They, in time, will interact with the Dutchman’s crew.

[Below: the sailors of Daland’s crew; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


Notes on the Musical Performance

Few operas are as centered around the orchestra as “Dutchman”, so the authoritative and affectionate conducting of James Conlon, heads the list of virtues of the Los Angeles performance.

The title role was sung by baritone Tomas Tomasson, who looked amazingly like Tim Olyphant’s character Raylan Givens in the television dramatic series Justified, especially in the Schmidt-Futterer hat, that, of course, was designed long before the television drama.

[Below: Tomas Tomasson as the Dutchman; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


Just as my colleague Tom had noted in his review of the first performance, Tomasson was the dominant presence in the cast, absorbing in his great monologue Die Frist ist um. I also found his duet with James Creswell’s Daland memorable. (The duet’s  music is so light-hearted it could be sung at a concert of selections from Viennese operettas, without anyone noticing a mood change.)

Tomasson’s Dutchman’s great final trio with Senta and Erik, noted below, was also praiseworthy.

In the smaller roles Ronnita Nicole Miller projected the role of Mary effectively. Matthew Plenk was especially impressive as the Steersman.

[Below: Matthew Plenk as the Steersman; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


In a six person cast, strong performers in good health in the roles of the Dutchman, Daland, Mary and the Steersman, with the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra under James Conlon, will go a long way to assuring a successful musical performance.

I am reluctant to make a final judgment on Matos as Senta, since she had recently withdrawn from a performance because of ill health. I had the impression that she was harboring her vocal resources, as one might expect for a person recovering from a previous illness.

That she was effective in the final scene with Erik and the Dutchman (and that the Los Angeles Opera is known for attracting great voices from around the world) suggested that one would want to hear her when she is in the peak of health.

[Below: Senta (Elisabete Matos, front) is aware of the presence of the Dutchman (Tomas Tomasson, rear); edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


John Pickle, who sings spinto roles elsewhere, does not yet have the vocal weight to be singing heldentenor roles in a house the size of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. That said, his phrasing was stylish, and he displayed a winsome lyric voice in Erik’s plaintive aria in the opera’s final scene.

For the record, Matos, Pickle and Tomasson were very effective in the trio that is the centerpiece of the important final scene.

Final Thoughts

In the complex enterprise that results in live operatic performances, not everything goes as well as originally planned, but in totality this was an often great, on balance very good performance of “Dutchman”. For those able to attend the final performances, I recommend it unreservedly.



Tags: 2005-2016: William's Reviews