Stellar singing overcomes awkward stage direction in Met’s “Dutchman”

Wed Apr 26, 2017 at 11:19 am
Micahel Volle and Amber Wagner in Wagner's "Der fliegende Holländer" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Richard Termine

Michael Volle and Amber Wagner in “Der fliegende Holländer” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Richard Termine

Tuesday night was not only opening night for the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Der fliegende Holländer. It was also a preview of things to come.

Yannick Nézet-Séquin, who becomes the Met’s next music director in 2020, was in the pit, and those so inclined could use the Wagner opera–one of the many through which James Levine forged his indelible stamp on the house—to compare the past to the future. On this night, the future looked bright.

Nézet-Séguin led a fiery performance of The Flying Dutchman, with a superior level of singing. If the overall production had some clunkiness, that was no fault of the conductor.

Not that Nézet-Séquin himself was flawless. After an electrifying opening for the Overture, the quiet music was prosaic, rather than tender. The Overture never returned to its initial galvanizing feeling, but once the curtain went up and the chorus of sailors belted out a full-throated “Hojoje!” the fierce energy returned.

In a pattern that remained consistent through the performance, the singing of the principal performers—bass-baritone Michael Volle in the title role, soprano Amber Wagner as Senta, bass Franz-Josef Selig as Daland, and tenor AJ Glueckert in his Met debut as Erik—seemed to stimulate and inspire the conductor. At least, that is, in the more energetic and extroverted music—quieter and slower sections tended toward a start-stop quality.

The singers carried the performance through those spots. This was a night when the performers kept upping the ante in intensity and beauty. Selig sang with a commanding voice from the start, using a pleasingly big vibrato during “Kein Zweifel!”, then modulating to a lighter sound and a tighter vibrato when the character’s craven lust for riches overwhelms his care for his daughter, Senta.

Wagner was the epitome of vocal luminosity as Senta, her voice shining through and above every orchestral texture. There is no picture of the Dutchman in this staging, her Act II “Traft ihr das Schiff in Meer an” was formed entirely within, and her amber sound flowed with insistent, powerful feeling. The impeccable logic of her phrasing gave her characterization a sense of dignity and agency.

Volle’s performance was a tour-de-force. His voice had a bit less heft than Selig and Wagner, but his sound was shapely and his ability to present every nuance added compelling weight. His every moment on stage was riveting; the burning bitterness over his cursed fate was clear, and more impressive was the contained foundation of pain and sorrow on which he raised his hopes for redemption via Senta.

His performance of “Die Frist ist um” in Act I was a microcosm of the evening. Morose, bitter, calculating, sincere, tender, and vicious in turn, each switchback in mood was firm. Yet they were also components of a clear dramatic direction. This was also in sympathy with Nézet-Séguin’s large-scale shaping of the score.

Volle also single-handedly righted the balance  for the negative effect of the staging. This 1989 production from August Everding has a sensible, straightforward design, but the stage direction by Stephen Pickover too often fell back into the outdated park-and-bark style of Wagner productions of the past.

The chorus did make active use of the sets, and Volle stalked up and down the gangway of his ghost ship, the stairway hanging in the air and only momentarily, and symbolically, touching the ground. But mostly the singers stood and let rip, with occasional gestures. The opera world is long past the point where singers are incompetent actors, so there’s no excuse for such lazy direction.

This direction had a specifically deleterious effect on Glueckert’s performance. Filling in for Jay Hunter Morris, who had to cancel his participation in this run, Glueckert had the right heroic quality, though could not match the others in projection. He also didn’t have their level of vocal charisma, and his stiff gestures weren’t helped by the awkward blocking.

The supporting roles were superbly filled. Tenor Ben Bliss sang the Steersman, and his performance was equal parts sheer loveliness and charm—the “Helmsman’s Song” was extraordinarily mellifluous. The wonderful, veteran mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick was Mary, pushed around in a wheel chair and singing with an enormous sound and a pleasing, hard edge that captured the character’s authority.

Excellent and ridiculous direction were set side by side. The chorus’ drunken revelry to start Act III was interesting and full of vitality, and the appearance of the ghost sailors was genuinely scary. But then Senta’s attempt to block the Dutchman from returning to his ship was comically awkward.

But that was a minor flaw in Act III, which was otherwise absolutely thrilling, the intensity and power inexorably rising to the tragic denouement and the warmth of the final chord. Nézet-Séquin and the orchestra were at their best here, playing with brilliance and strength. This production goes straight through without intermissions, and the orchestra, like a great athlete, gained energy when others would normally accumulate fatigue. Levine’s Wagner might have more color and brilliant details, but the fire that Nézet-Séguin delivered was special.

Der fliegende Holländer continues through May 12. metopera.org; 212-362-2000.


3 Responses to “Stellar singing overcomes awkward stage direction in Met’s “Dutchman””

  1. Posted Apr 28, 2017 at 7:50 pm by mary d. nelson

    So good to read your review. Out here with the cowboys and Indians,it’s so refreshing to read something other than “rodeo”news.
    Found your site via Wagner Society of Northern Ca.
    Mary Nelson,Reno NV

  2. Posted Apr 30, 2017 at 9:32 am by Steve Tiger

    Musically, the performance was outstanding–soloists, chorus and orchestra. In terms of staging, it was at best mediocre. The gauze curtain covered the stage throughout the entirety of Acts 1 and 3, and there was no need for that (fog and snow could have been suggested and then dispensed with). Also, at the end of Act 3, Senta just walks calmly up the stairs and disappears while the onlookers stand by with no more involvement than people watching paint dry: that scene should be terrifying. Act 2 mercifully dispensed with the gauze curtain, but the staging was still undistinguished. The musicians triumphed; the staging was a let-down: not offensively stupid as some opera productions have been (don’t get me started on the Met’s “Lady Macbeth”), but detracting from rather than adding to the intensity of the drama.

  3. Posted May 09, 2017 at 2:40 pm by XX

    The trio at the end became a duet due to projection. Although it was very very thrilling. And the MET orchestra sounded absolutely fantastic in the MET acoustics especially compared to what I heard from the NY Philharmonic last week in that awful hall next door.

    Completely agree with you on the stage direction. Especially painful to watch was the sewing scene.

    One thing that bothered me was that the Met chorus sopranos sound like they are singing their note plus 2 or 3 nearby notes at the same time. Not just in this performance but every performance.

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