I saw and heard opening night of the Canadian Opera Company’s Flying Dutchman tonight at the Four Seasons Centre, a revival of a Christopher Alden production directed for this revival by Marilyn Gronsdal.
I liked it a lot.
The COC lead with their strengths in this production, with a wonderful outing from the orchestra under conductor Johannes Debus and the sparkling work of their chorus.
Flying Dutchman is a bit of a funny opera: literally. It’s ghostly enough to be apt for October and Halloween, the story of a cursed sailor seeking redemption through true love. Yet is full of comic elements that are often ignored if a director takes the work or himself too seriously.
It seems to sit on the boundary of genres, an evolutionary masterpiece from the young Richard Wagner that employs devices recognizable from older styles. The blend reminds me a bit of Beethoven’s Fidelio, a rescue opera with a disarmingly light comic opening due to the masquerade of the main character.
While the Dutchman is not disguised, he’s seen and understood differently by almost everyone. Daland, a captain who would like to marry off his daughter Senta, sees the wealthy Dutchman as an opportunity, and fits the type of a father in a romantic comedy. Erik is Senta’s jealous lover, who sees the Dutchman as a threat to his happiness.
Senta sings the ballad of the Dutchman while staring at his portrait. Her intensity disturbs everyone.
Although the other girls have been mocking her for obsessing about a man in a painting on the wall and because her boyfriend Erik would be jealous, when the sailors (aka their boyfriends or husbands) arrive home they rush away in excitement, conveniently forgetting all about Senta.
And so while the story of Senta might resemble a romance (where the usual comic ending might see Erik marry Senta), but for Senta herself and the Dutchman, it’s actually something quite new. It’s a spiritual tale of redemption.
I mention the comic element because that sometimes gets lost in the profundities. They make a welcome return this time out.
The chorus bring lots of joyful energy to the proceedings.
My favorite scene is the last one, when the ghostly crew of the Dutchman’s ship are roused by the chorus onstage. When we see the fun-loving sailors of Daland’s ship with their girlfriends / wives, the sudden shift in the music is genuinely scary.
Daland as sung by Franz-Josef Selig is a very human father, particularly in his second act aria, when he brings Senta & the Dutchman together with no thoughts of ghosts or redemption. He sings the role more softly and subtly than any I’ve heard. Christopher Ventris as Erik was very compelling.
Allen Moyer’s set design is a bit of a challenge in the Four Seasons Centre, sometimes leaving parts of the stage partially obscured, as well as leading to some acoustical quirks, unevenness of sound.
It helps when the voices onstage are as good as Johan Reuter’s Dutchman and Marjorie Owens’ Senta. I was very impressed by the way they played the relationship. I don’t know if this is mostly their creation or something from Gronsdal, but I was delighted to see a genuine sense of connection and vulnerability between them. There’s so much big singing in this opera that it can seem larger than life, especially if the singers care most about making a big sound, becoming so preoccupied with their vocalism as to forget making a convincing connection onstage. It’s a cliché in Wagner operas, where the roles are so difficult that the acting can be forgotten or not prioritized. But not so on this occasion. I was struck by how human they seemed, thinking Wagner himself would have liked it.
The Flying Dutchman continues at the Four Seasons Centre until October 23rd.