Monday, December 3, 2007

Accursed Strangers

Certain operas tend to make their presence felt in waves. Last May, while attending Great Britain's Brighton Festival, I experienced the New Sussex Opera's production of The Flying Dutchman (which was performed in the Dome Theatre using a thrust stage and three-quarter round seating). Last August, the Santa Fe Opera produced its version of The Flying Dutchman in New Mexico's legendary semi-outdoors opera house. In October, the San Francisco Opera revived Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's "dream" interpretation of The Flying Dutchman at the War Memorial Opera House. Next January, the Seattle Opera is slated to unveil a new production of Wagner's opera which will be designed by Thomas Lynch, directed by Stephen Wadsworth and conducted by Gerard Schwarz.

As a result, within the twelve-month period ending January 31st, I will end up seeing four different interpretations of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman (an opera which is produced rarely enough during any one season). What makes this phenomenon such a curious treat is the fact that, because these productions are being staged by four opera companies with extremely different artistic philosophies, the musical, visual and emotional impact of each production is being shaped by acutely different physical dimensions and wildly contrasting dramatic interpretations.

The ability to reinterpret, re-experience and rethink any opera allows a music lover to probe deeper into the heart of the opera's musical and dramatic values. As far as live theatre is concerned, that's what makes for good horse racing!

Why? Because, when the various elements of any live production (singers, orchestra, lighting, sets, costumes and stage direction) come together to create a unified whole, the experience is exhilarating, intoxicating and, under the best of circumstances, revelatory. However, when, like a souffle, the individual ingredients are out of balance, the results can range from a noble failure to a sloppy mess which should never have graced the stage.


Back in 1975, when the San Francisco Opera unveiled Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's one-act "dream" interpretation of The Flying Dutchman, the production's intense theatricality was so overwhelming that this staging soon became the talk of the town. Despite the strength of Ponnelle's exquisitely-designed unit set and Pet Halmen's highly-stylized costumes, the real star of this production has always been the lighting designer, Thomas J. Munn, who, more than any other individual, has given the director's interpretive vision the theatrical clarity and dramatic forcefulness it demands.

When the Metropolitan Opera borrowed the production from the San Francisco Opera in early 1979, New York's critics (who loathed Ponnelle) were quick to tear it to shreds and dismiss it as a paltry "regional" effort. Ponnelle's staging returned to San Francisco later that year, achieved a moderate success the second time around, and was revived again this fall.

Following the director's untimely death last summer, one of Ponnelle's assistants, Vera Lucia Calabria was given the responsibility of staging The Flying Dutchman in San Francisco. Along with conductor Jerome Kaltenbach and chorus director Ian Robertson, Calabria did her best to recreate the feel of the original production.

Despite a vigorous performance from the San Francisco Opera chorus (which, at times, seemed to be performing aerobics aboard Daland's ship) much of the original spark from Ponnelle's production was missing. The sound delivered by the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus (which was hired to sing the offstage chorus attributed to the Dutchman's crew) was severely compromised by the poor quality of the sound system which carried these men's voices from a backstage rehearsal room to the main auditorium.

At the matinee performance I attended, Jose Van Dam's Dutchman sounded noticeably wan (Van Dam was obviously battling a cold), Sergei Koptchak's Daland seemed similarly under par and tenor Wieslaw Ochman (whose portrayals of both Erik and the Steersman form a central part of Ponnelle's interpretation) took quite a while to warm up. The soprano originally scheduled to appear as Senta (Deborah Polaski) had been replaced by Sophia Larson, who did a creditable, if unexceptional job with the role.

As you can imagine, the necessary musical and dramatic mesh necessary to give this revival its full strength was lacking. Sources within the industry now tell me that Polaski (who starred as Brunnhilde in Harry Kupfer's staging of Wagner's Ring in Bayreuth this summer) has found Jesus and, in order to serve God better, cancelled the rest of her singing engagements.

The Lord works his wonders in strange ways.


Alas, the Lord had precious little to do with this summer's miserable staging of The Flying Dutchman by the Santa Fe Opera. John Conklin's bizarre unit set and striking costume designs failed to deter director Nikolaus Lehnhoff from achieving the near-impossible: boring an audience to death while staging a familiar opera in such a way that nobody knew what he was attempting to do with the piece.

Lehnhoff must have some perverse streak in him which insists on disemboweling Wagnerian operas. Although his 1985 staging of the Ring in San Francisco proved to be a reasonably tame affair, his 1987 Ring in Munich became the scandal of the opera world. Last summer, in Santa Fe, he gave American audiences a taste of what the worst, most wretched extremes of acute "directoritis" can do to an opera.

Somehow or other, Lehnhoff transposed the action in The Flying Dutchman to a modern Scandinavian seaside town where Senta works as some sort of graphic designer, photographer or resident artist who keeps drawing sketches of her phantom Dutchman. Due, no doubt, to Lehnhoff's bizarre stage direction, Marilyn Zschau's intense portrayal of Senta was dangerously out of whack. Vocally, her performance was downright appalling. The soprano (whose instrument has been in pretty rocky shape for the past few years) kept straying dangerously off pitch so that, at times, it seemed as if one could steer the Dutchman's entire phantom ship through the holes in Zschau's voice without even scratching a mucous membrane. I found it more than a little peculiar to watch this Senta stab herself to death at the end of the opera as if she were performing the lead role in Puccini's Madama Butterfly. But, hey, that's show business.

Although James Morris did a beautiful job singing the role of the Dutchman, his solid professionalism did little to soften the grotesque and ghastly impact of Lehnhoff's abortive directorial concept. Tenor Mark Thomsen sang the role of the Steersman while mezzo-soprano Clarity James made her presence felt as Mary. William Wildermann (who was reported to be recovering from an angina attack) sang the role of Daland in a noticeably subdued manner while Mark Baker did a lot of ugly shouting as Erik.

Despite some reasonable conducting by Edo De Waart, I left the Santa Fe Opera House feeling cheated and angry at the end of the performance. That's because, when it is presented under such adverse circumstances, it's difficult to enjoy one of your favorite operas. But it's much worse when the principals are painfully off-pitch and the staging makes you want to puke.

Being the good girl scout that I am, I'm proud to report that I held onto my cookies.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 23, 1988.

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