It must be some weird coincidence that most of the Washington National Opera’s better recent productions have taken place on boats. I can’t figure out a causal logic for this: Last year’s Moby-Dick and Florencia in the Amazon, two turn-of-the-21st century operas, were daring programming choices; 2013’s Show Boat, a musical masquerading as an opera, was more pandering. In contrast, The Flying Dutchman, WNO’s current production, is neither particularly novel (a third-time-round company revival by director Stephen Lawless) nor particularly fun (it’s Wagner, after all). Nevertheless, it’s quite good, and—-in contrast to the first three, which banked on their spectacular sets—-good for a more conventional reason: the singing.
Wagner’s opera wasn’t originally going to be a vocal showcase, or really much of an opera at all; he’d conceived it as a one-act opening number to precede a ballet. This would explain why, even after he stretched it out to three acts, it remains a relatively digestible two hours and change, in comparison to his later career five-hour bladder-busters like Tristan und Isolde. So it makes for an accessible Wagner that is still recognizably Wagnerian. There’s the redemption-through-love motif in a libretto he managed to make semi-autobiographical despite being based on a legend of a ghost ship (and also an older legend of the Wandering Jew; the fact that Wagner identified with this character is odd, given how he felt about Jews).
The legend concerns, if you recall your SpongeBob, a mad captain condemned to roam the seas forever unless he finds a faithful woman to marry him; the extent of the parallels to Wagner’s own life is that he once took a long boat trip and probably felt persecuted and sexually frustrated a lot. And there’s the over-the-top music with that iconic horn theme, representing the literal storm that opens the story and the title character’s stormy conscience—-iconic because Wagner repeats it about 900 times throughout the opera, just in case you didn’t get it the first few times.
A-list bass-baritone Eric Owens anchors the production as the titular Dutchman; the Kurtis Blow fan‘s connection to WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello goes back to his well-regarded role as Porgy in Zambello’s production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Owens’ famously deep, rumbling delivery reveals a decent range, given a part that requires him to spend a lot of time in the upper end of his register. Christiane Libor is equally impressive as the Dutchman’s bride-to-be Senta, traded by her father for some jewels but it’s OK because she loves him. “I’m a mere child, not even aware of what I’m singing” is one of her lines, almost too funny to be unintentionally funny, but we know Wagner doesn’t do irony. Libor’s soprano is just shy of strident in her Act Two exchanges with her gossipy friends, but ultimately sharp, clear and well matched to Owens in their last act duets. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris, as Senta’s jealous ex, and bass Ain Anger, as her father, are also stout voiced and well balanced. There isn’t a weak link in the bunch.
If there’s any obvious drawback, it would be the third act’s choruses, which for some reason were apparently recorded and piped in over speakers, creating inevitable timing problems with the live orchestra (the Washington Ballet knows this pitfall well). It’s not like the opera doesn’t have a live chorus: There’s a bunch of sailors, seen right from the start, jibbing the rigs or whatever’s the nautical term for their goofy synchronized dance, looking like a pirate-themed K-pop boy band. The staging, while not as ambitious as previous productions’ big boat sets, is intriguingly off-kilter, constructed around concentric trapezoids that frame projections of seascapes and give everything a faraway funhouse look.
Philippe Augin leads the orchestra in a stately take on Wagner’s musical melodrama, with an exaggeratedly slow and steady overture that later picks up to a jaunty tempo. Monday’s performance had a brief but noticeable tuning issue between the horns and woodwinds, but Augin led the orchestra confidently with some nicely layered themes staggered among the strings, winds and brass.
This shorter Wagner opera with Augin in the pit serves as a warm-up to WNO’s much-hyped Ring cycle, debuting next year. It will cap a season the WNO recently unveiled which will also include a couple of not-so-exciting chestnuts (Carmen and Hansel and Gretel, for the kids) and a couple of newer works: Philip Glass’ Appomattox—-a first for the WNO, having somehow never staged any of his operas—-and Owens returning for Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars, an adaptation of Cry, the Beloved Country. But after the Ring cycle, good luck remembering any of that. If 18 hours of Wagner sounds a little daunting, this is a pretty good, and much more manageable, alternative.
The production continues through March 21 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW. $25 – $300. In German with English surtitles.
Photo by Scott Suchman