Washington D.C., two days before the opening of Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman”, had been battered by snowstorms so fierce that they required cancellation of a Washington National Opera Thursday night performance of Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites”,
But on Saturday evening, fair weather prevailed and it proved smooth sailing for Wagner’s inherently stormy opera. Assuring a propitious opening night was the uniformly excellent cast, led by the sonorous and expressive American baritone Eric Owens in the title role.
[Below: Eric Owens as the Dutchman; edited image, based on a Scott Suchmann photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera and the Kennedy Center.]
Wagner’s earliest lasting success, “The Flying Dutchman” centers on the interactions of two spellbound beings.
The Dutchman has committed a sin that has condemned him to an eternal life captaining a ghost ship that can reach land only once every seven years.
Senta, daughter of Daland, another ship’s captain, is obsessed with the thought that she can bring about the Dutchman’s redemption through her own self-sacrifice on his behalf.
Lawless’ production (with deceptively simple asymmetrical sets by Giles Cable framing the action) incorporates several distinctive symbols. The rigging for Daland’s ship’s sails is used by Daland’s Steersman and crew to obtain a better view of a ghost ship.
[Below: Daland (Ain Anger, center, facing front) steers his ship towards a safe harbor; edited image, based on a Scott Suchmann photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera and the Kennedy Center.]
In his notes on the production contained in the program (which persons attending the performance should read before it begins) Lawless emphasizes the social alienation that Richard Wagner felt in his early career and the composer’s identification with the Dutchman’s fate.
Thus, unlike the ropes that facilitate the crews work on Daland’s ship, the rigging on the Dutchman’s ship ensnares its captain.
[Below: The Dutchman (Eric Owens) knows he is eternally damned; edited image based on a Scott Suchmann photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera and the Kennedy Center.]
In one of Lawless’ most striking innovations, symbolic reference is made to a literary work that preceded Wagner’s “Dutchman” by almost a half-century, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s mysterious poem about sin and redemption, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
The portrait of the Dutchman that so distracts Senta in her workplace has the Mariner’s albatross flying over the head of the Dutchman. At opera’s end, as Senta performs the act that redeems the Dutchman, the images of two albatrosses are seen in the sky above.
[Below: Senta (Christiane Libor, left) is transfixed by the Dutchman’s portrait; edited image, based on a Scott Suchmann photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera and the Kennedy Center.]
Eternally damned women, who failed the Dutchman’s tests of their fidelity in his past visits to shore, are clad in red bridal dresses. The ghost-brides are allowed briefly to descend the gangplank to shore, a few moments later to return to their endless voyage.
Senta herself appears in a red bridal dress to join the Dutchman, but he overhears Erik pointing out to Senta that she had pledged eternal fidelity to him before she met the Dutchman.
In an effective image of the three characters holding hands in a line, the disheartened Dutchman attempts to return to his ghost ship, while Senta attempts to restrain him from departing, and simultaneously Erik tries to keep hold of Senta.
Notes on the Cast
The four principal roles were well cast. Eric Owens arresting characterization of the Dutchman was nicely balanced by a strong performance by the Senta of German dramatic soprano Christiane Libor in her Washington National Opera debut.
The artists assaying the two principal supporting roles (both Washington National Opera debuts) deserve special commendation.
Jay Hunter Morris, who has taken on the major demanding heldentenor roles, was Erik, the Dutchman’s rival for Senta’s affections.
[Below: Jay Hunter Morris is Erik; edited image, based on a Scott Suchmann photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]
Morris has the requisite power and stamina for role of Siegfried in Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” that has moved him into the first rank of contemporary artists in these challenging roles, yet retains the role of Erik in his performance repertory.
Hearing Morris in the lushly melodic role of Erik is a pleasurable experience, Morris displaying the secure legato lines and the vocal color that I refer to as bel canto Wagnerian singing.
Also worthy of special note is the Daland of Estonian basso Ain Anger, yet another example of an artist who sings Wagner as beautifully as he sings Verdi.
[Below: Ain Anger as Daland; edited image, based on a Scott Suchmann photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera and the Kennedy Center.]
The opera’s two comprimario roles are that of the Steersman, sung nicely by the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Michael Brandenburg, and of Mary, sung by Dana Beth Miller in a vivid characterization of the officious supervisor of the working women.
Washington National Opera music director Philippe Auguin conducted.
I recommend this production and cast without reservation.