Opera Warhorses

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

Opera Warhorses random header image

Ryan McKinny, Melody Moore, Jay Hunter Morris Soar in “Flying Dutchman” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 18, 2013

July 19th, 2013

Stage director and impresario Francesca Zambello is in her third season as General and Artistic Director of the Glimmerglass Festival, located on Lake Otsego, New York. For the second consecutive season, she has staged a new production of a major  work from the standard operatic repertory.

In celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner, Zambello mounted Wagner’s first enduring success, “The Flying Dutchman (Der Fliegende Hollaender)”.

Her conceptualization of the mythic story centered on the psychological obsession of a teenage girl for a male figure. The effect, as with most Zambello journeys into familiar operas, was revelatory.

Although Wagner’s composition requires Senta to be a focus of every production of “Flying Dutchman”, Zambello’s emphasis on the work’s “feminine side” , I believe, transforms the piece from a fairy tale that ends badly to a deeply psychological mythic drama. What does happen to the women with whom the Dutchman had been engaged in his disembarkation every seven years? What has Senta done that so upsets the Dutchman?

Wagner and Verdi in the Alice Busch Theater

Daunting as it might seem to produce such outsized works as any standard repertory Wagnerian opera or Verdi’s grand opera “Aida” in the Glimmerglass Festival’s 900 seat Alice Busch Theater, these operas typically were first presented in surroundings that were far more intimate than the size of modern productions.

(Zambello pointed out last year that the premiere of “Aida” took place in an opera house in Cairo smaller than the Alice Busch, and we know from history that such Wagnerian operas as “Lohengrin” were first performed with orchestras smaller than the 46 member Glimmerglass Orchestra (for “Dutchman” augmented by several brass instruments).

With brilliant acoustics, international rank artists in every major role and the heightened  theatrical experience that one expects from a Zambello project, “Dutchman” proved as exciting an evening as last season’s “Aida”.

Ryan McKinny’s Dutchman

The “Flying Dutchman’s” title character is, of course, not Senta, but the Dutchman. In this role Zambello cast the young baritone Ryan McKinny, clad in a costume that permits a bare chested McKinny to sport a large (painted on) chest tattoo of the Dutchman’s ship with the German phrase Verdamnis (damned) written above it.

[Below: The Dutchman (Ryan McKinny) holds a portrait of himself; edited image, based on a Karli Cadil photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Only age 32, McKinny displayed a large, mellifluous voice, suggesting an important future career in the dramatic baritone roles of Wagner and Verdi. (His role debut as Rigoletto is scheduled for Houston Grand Opera in January, 2014.) Zambello’s direction permitted him to develop, instead of a remote ghost figure, a more human character, who connects empathetically with Senta.

Empathy with the women who have been destroyed by his curse is as much a concern of Zambello’s Dutchman as is his personal damnation and that of the men of his crew.

That concern is visualized in one of Zambello’s most arresting images: women who have pledged fidelity to the Dutchmen, but were found wanting, are themselves entangled forever in the mast riggings of the Dutchman’s ship. They cluster around him as he walks from ghost ship to shore.

[Below: the Dutchman (Ryan McKinny, silhouetted at right) walks on deck while women who had failed him are entangled in his ship’s riggings; edited image based on a Jamie Kraus photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Melody Moore’s Senta and Jay Hunter Morris’ Erik

The performance of Melody Moore as Senta was as remarkable as McKinny’s Dutchman. Singing Senta’s ballad with vibrancy and passion, Moore displayed not only the vocal power needed for this iconic Wagnerian role, but physical strength and agility, when called upon to scamper up a laddered pole at various moments.

Moore was also an effective actor, able to be convincing as a woman fixated on caring for an emotionally wounded man whom she has long known about but only just met.

A triangle is created with the introduction of Senta’s long-time suitor Erik, elegantly sung with the power of a Young Siegfried, by Jay Hunter Morris (now one of the world’s reigning Siegfrieds).

[Below: Senta (Melody Moore, left) recoils from the advances of Erik (Jay Hunter Morris, right); edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Although Moore’s Senta wishes to disentangle herself from Erik, she is reluctant to hurt him, allowing herself to be found by the Dutchman in a compromising bedroom scene, setting up the opera’s denouement.

Zambello Decodes Wagner

When Zambello takes on a Wagnerian opera, one begins to see deeper meaning to the relationships between the characters that Wagner created.

I have written in the past about how Zambello’s decision to locate the first act of Wagner’s “Die Walkuere” in her American Ring in a neatly kept little Appalachian cabin unexpectedly caused me and likely others to think about what may well have been a content and even loving relationship between Hunding and Sieglinde, before the disruptive arrival of Siegmund to wreck their home life.

[Below: Stage director Francesca Zambello; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


So too the “humanizing” of the relationship between the Dutchman, Senta and Erik, where heartfelt pleas and seething passions make this as contemporary as any story about love triangles between two men and a woman. (The fascination of 21st century cable television and cinema audiences for human stories with supernatural elements even strengthens the analogy.)

Then the sweet music of the Erik-Senta and Dutchman-Senta duets and Erik-Dutchman-Senta trio becomes even sweeter because one begins to care more deeply about the characters as illuminated in this production than some readings of the opera that one might see.

The Break

There are two traditions for presenting the opera. Wagner wrote it as a three act opera with two intermissions. However, most  contemporary companies present the opera without any intermission.

Zambello decided to break the opera, for audience comfort, in the middle of Wagner’s second act, at the moment when the Dutchman appears in person (accompanied by her father) in Senta’s home. I found the Zambello division of the opera into two acts to be dramatically valid.

The Other Cast Members

Basso Peter Volpe was a sonorous Daland, and was an effective actor in one of this most ingratiating of the smaller Wagnerian lead roles.

Mary, who had several non-textual, but dramatically logical, appearances later in the opera, was sung by Young Artist Deborah Nansteel.

[Below: Daland (Peter Volpe, left) criticizes the attentiveness of his Steersman (Adam Bielamowicz, right); edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Adam Bielamowicz, also a Glimmerglass Young Artist, was an engaging Steersmen with much to do in the complicated shipboard routines, in which Daland’s crew engaged in coordinated pulling of the mast lines, and various other duties on a sailing ship.

Daland’s ship was not all work and no play. The men amused themselves with dancing and hornpipes, and, of course the festivities of the final act.

[Below: the deckhands pull the ropes that set the ship sails; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Ropes and ship lines were a major theme of the production. Besides the mast-turning efforts of Daland’s deckhands, in this production the women on shore who sing the “spinning chorus” are engaged in braiding heavy ropes (which they do with remarkable precision before our eyes).

The rigging rope in which the Dutchmen’s encounters of previous ages are entangled is a recurring theme in which both Senta and the Dutchman will appear at times of high drama. And rope has a major  role in Senta’s demise as well.

[Below: the women of the village braid ropes; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


 Glimmerglass Song and Dance

One of the truly remarkable features of the Glimmerglass Festival Young Artist’s program is the opportunity of the young singers not only to work as the choruses (as they do at the Santa Fe Opera festivals) but to take classes in stage dancing. In “Dutchman” several of the women choristers had additional choreographed moments in the Spinning scenes, and several men dancer-choristers showed enhanced skills in shipboard hornpipes and other on-deck dance moves.

If the Glimmerglass efforts to create dancing opera singers catches on, as I expect it will, in time we will have a crop of American artists that not only can sing and act, but will be accomplished dancers as well.

Eric Sean Fogel deserves special recognition for the always interesting choreography.

John Keenan was the Conductor. The sets were by James Noone, costumes by Erik Teague, and lighting by Mark McCullough.


I recommend this production without reservation, both for Zambello’s insightful presentation of a familiar story, and for the brilliant trio of Ryan McKinny, Melody Moore and Jay Hunter Morris, as well as a strong secondary cast.


For my review of Francesca Zambello’s production of “Aida”, see Role Debuts All Around in Intimate “Aida” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 23, 2012.

For my review of a previous Ryan McKinny performance, see: London, Handel, and David Alden: ENO’s “Radamisto” – October 13, 2010.

For my review of previous Melody Moore performances, see: A “Tosca” Surprise in San Francisco – Angela Gheorghiu, Melody Moore Split Role of Tosca, Massimo Giordano Excels as Cavaradossi- November 15, 2012, and also,

Hampson’s Heroic “Heart of a Soldier” at the War Memorial – San Francisco Opera, September 10, 2011, and also,

Toby Spence Stars in Des McAnuff’s Rousing ENO Production of Gounod’s “Faust” – London, October 14, 2010.

For my review of previous Jay Hunter Morris performances, see: Another Opera House Conquered: Ovations for Heggie’s “Moby Dick” at San Francisco Opera, October 10, 2012, and also,

Down and Out in Zambello’s American Ring: Sly, Theatrically-Centered “Siegfried” Satisfies – San Francisco Opera, June 17, 2011, and also

Dissecting “The Fly”: the American Premiere of Shore’s Opera in L.A. – September 7, 2008.



Tags: 2005-2016: William's Reviews