Despite some fine singing, Met’s problematic “Dutchman” runs aground

Wed May 31, 2023 at 1:27 pm
Tomasz Konieczny in the title role and Elza van den Heever as Senta in Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

Just four performances of a newish production coming at the end of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2022-2023 season seems, on paper, like an afterthought. 

But the short run of Der fliegende Holländer that opened at the Met Tuesday night was also a long-delayed continuation. This production by François Girard premiered in the winter of 2020, shortly before the house closed because of the Covid pandemic, after only three performances.

So what does that make Tuesday night? More than an afterthought, yet something almost brand-new that was also less than a premiere—an established staging that still seemed to be a work in progress. This accumulation of unavoidable cancellations and scheduling ambiguities wasn’t responsible for the unfinished, mismatched quality of the evening, but certainly was emblematic of it.

This Flying Dutchman cast differed from the 2020 premiere, and it was the singers who were the best part—fine as could be, delivering musical moments that that had powerful effects. 

Bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny—a veteran Wagner singer—sang the cursed sailor and soprano Elza van den Heever was Senta, the young woman who wants to rescue him from his ghostly fate to haunt the fjords of Norway every seven years. Both were excellent. The Dutchman’s aria decrying his fate, “Die Frist ist um,” was technically and expressively absorbing; more than following the line, Konieczny modulated his sound from a rounded, plumby tone to blunt and powerful as he followed the twists and turns of the character’s emotions.

Likewise, van den Heever was superb in her important Ballad of the Dutchman, the musical key to the drama in that it both explains his fate and her own place in resolving it. Her sound was lovely and her succinct phrasing and perfect intonation was a small thrill in itself, the feeling of care she put into the singing an expression of the character’s motivations. For all its atmospheric settings and theatrical musical power, Holländer is far from Wagner’s deepest and most gripping score, but between these two parts of the story from the leads, one was at the edge of wholehearted commitment.

But the other principal singers were let down by Girard’s staging and, to a lesser extent, the conducting of Thomas Guggeis, making his Met debut.

Tenor Erik Cutler showed a lovely, high tone and graceful, expressive phrasing as Erik, the sailor who promises himself to Senta. Bass Dmitry Belosselskiy was full of character and vocal weight as Daland, believably craven in his eagerness to sell Senta off to the Dutchman.

As the Steersman, tenor Richard Trey Smagur displayed a colorful sound and insouciance that provided a bit of illumination to the overall darkness of this production.

From the man who has delivered two tremendous Wagner productions in Parsifal and Lohengrin, the obviousness, thinness, and even lazy banality of Girard’s  Holländer is hard to square. Perhaps Girard needs a score rich enough in its own ideas that it does all the thinking for him, because there was barely any thinking on this dark stage, comprised mainly of black and grey rocks. There are literal projections of what might be the characters’ thoughts, with a dancer miming Senta and followed by spinning lights during the overture, then a single eye—standing in for the portrait of the Dutchman that enthralls Senta—looming over the stage. But these are weakm cliched effects. Perhaps the overture pantomime is there for Met audiences, which generally have trouble listening through extended overtures, but the eye is sophomoric and with Senta in red too ham-handedly reminiscent of The Handmaids Tale.

The one other major stage element is in Act II, with the maidens singing the spinning song while delivering ridiculous hand movements—as well as shaking ropes that hang from the ceiling, sending waves up and down—which quickly grows tiresome. (They’re the strands of fate, in case anyone missed what the story was about.)

With Konieczny and van den Heever so committed, singing with such dramatic force (also abetted by energetic singing from the chorus), it was a shame the staging and conducting were so superficial. Guggeis opened with a crackling overture, and the colors of the orchestra were typically excellent  (having to do with the musicians themselves). 

The musical performance was well-paced and smooth, but also featureless, like the stage itself. Guggeis seemed to be depending on Wagner to supply all the energy and power, which meant that vigorous music was stimulating, but slower, calmer passages were often dull, with indistinct rhythms and phrases, and the energy from the pit ebbed in these passages. Presented without intermission and running about two and a half hours, this was often enervating. The singers did their best, but can’t carry everything in this Holländer.

Der Fliegender Holländer runs through June 10.

2 Responses to “Despite some fine singing, Met’s problematic “Dutchman” runs aground”

  1. Posted May 31, 2023 at 4:46 pm by Michael

    I agree with your assessment of the singers (except perhaps the Steersman, whose singing was rough, but fortunately, he’s got very few lines). All of Girard’s productions at the Met were unsuccessful, with Parsifal being the worst. Besides pretentious, annoying tricks, the characters were scattered across the desolate stage, with their interactions dimmed by the setting and distance. The opposite was done in Lohengrin, where the opera’s vast forces were cocooned into what seemed like a basement apartment.

    In the Dutchman, the space utilization was appropriate, and the rest did not matter. I liked those ropes and how they filled the stage. And most important, the conducting was fabulous, revealing the lyrical side of the score and its beauty. Knowing this opera by heart, it was like hearing many parts for the first time (and very convincingly). Overall, it was a great performance. I consider myself lucky to have seen it (and from a good seat:-)).

  2. Posted Jun 12, 2023 at 7:27 pm by Lynda Smith

    Smagur as the Steersman illuminated all aspects of the role – from the sailor’s call to exchanges with Daland to lyricism when thinking of his lass at home. Even in the short role, the beauty and strength of his voice were apparent including lovely dimenuendos which carried to the top of the theater. Looking forward to more from this talented singer actor!!!

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