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Atlanta Opera's Flying Dutchman delivers sturm, drang 

The Flying Dutchman can frighten people, and not just because he’s a centuries-old ghostly captain, doomed to sail the seven seas eternally.

Richard Wagner’s supernatural nautical romance The Flying Dutchman, like many heavyweight operas, can intimidate audiences because of its running time and language barrier, not to mention the grandeur of the feelings involved. Opera arguably traffics in greater passions than any of the art forms, and the characters express emotions more deeply than the average person may feel in a lifetime. The Atlanta Opera’s The Flying Dutchman proves that opera, however stylized, can rise above the ironic detachment that ascends so much contemporary art.

The Flying Dutchman's protagonists tap such soaring feelings that even their fellows in the Wagnerian ensemble seem, by comparison, as grounded as you and me. The Atlanta Opera’s stirring production, directed by Tomer Zvulun and conducted by Arthur Fagen, still touches on themes that hold relevance to contemporary audiences, while creating a deliciously spooky atmosphere.

The tempestuous effects start in your head before the curtain rises. When the orchestra plays Wagner’s overture, emphasizing the resounding, seven-note storm theme, it's easy to envision crashing waves and a ship’s wheel spinning in the spray. Even given the power of imagination, the opening tableau is impressive. The curtain lifts to reveal the life-size prow of a ship aswarm with the struggling sailors of Captain Daland (Kevin Langan). The ship finds temporary anchorage, the sailors retire, and soon the Flying Dutchman's bigger, more ornate yet decaying schooner noses into view. The set shows the ship from the bow in Act One and the stern in Act Three. Either way, it’s a massive, awe-inspiring stage effect, like a sea-going haunted house. 

The Dutchman (baritone Mark Delavan) disembarks and reflects how he can only go ashore once every seven years due to a deal he struck with the devil. Delavan works a shock of dark, windswept hair, and has vocal presence worthy of the Dutchman’s spectral vessel. His voice is practically cavernous, as if it resounds from the bottom of a well. He creates a vivid figure of despair and bitterness as he sings about his curse. Delavan seems to relish the German lyrics' guttural quality, punching the hisses and clicks that occasionally end the rhymes.

He strikes a sharp contrast to Langan’s bass as Captain Daland. The two share a surprisingly lovely duet at the end of Act One, given the Faustian forces at play. Daland sees the Dutchman’s riches and offers the stranger his daughter Senta’s hand in marriage. Daland’s mellifluous voice deliberately conveys the character’s middle-class sensibility, as if he’s currying favor and dwelling on earthly concerns, as opposed to the Dutchman's larger-than-life torments.

In a coincidence that’s a stretch even for an opera, Act Two reveals that Senta (Erika Sunnegårdh) carries a torch for the Dutchman from hearing the ballads of his plight. The second act reveals the sailors’ wives and female family members awaiting their return. Set designer Constantinos Kritikos uses thick beams to give the room the quality of a ship’s hold. The scene repeatedly establishes an unspoken kinship between Senta and the nautical life. When the ladies laugh at her, their voices sound like waves, and when she sings the Dutchman ballad, she reprises the sailors’ “Hojohe!” call that opens the opera, as if answering back. (That cry will remind even non-opera fans of the “Ride of the Valkyrie,” Wagner’s most familiar piece.)

On opening night, my opera-going wingman suggested that Ken Yunker lit Sunnegårdh’s performance of the ballad in a way reminiscent of the paintings of Vermeer. The tempestuous introductory images evoke Rembrandt’s storm paintings, and the rustic, warm glow of the land scenes similarly suggest the Dutch masters.

Paradoxically, some of the opera’s sweetest songs come from its most rough-hewn characters. The Steersman (terrific tenor Russell Thomas), sings a dulcet ode to his distant love before the Dutchman’s arrival. Senta’s fiancé Erik (tenor Jay Hunter Morris), a huntsman, turns out to be the piece's most sympathetic, relatable character, and he sings several heartbreaking entreaties to Senta. When the not-quite-a-couple sing about their relationship and he confronts her about her Dutchman obsession, she fires back, “Don’t you know that poor man’s fate?” Sunnegårdh hits a note conspicuously stronger than any when she sings about Erik. She claims to care for Erik, but her arias communicate something else.

In modern terms, Senta comes across as kind of a kinky, contemporary fangirl. If she lived in the early 21st century, she’d probably write slash fiction for Flying Dutchman websites. It’s just as well that things don’t work out between her and Erik. She’d probably ask him to bring tulips and wear wooden shoes to bed if they hooked up. Sunnegårdh’s performance keeps Senta from simply seeming like she has a death wish. She sings her major notes with an almost hungry quality, as if they’re not just a release of passion, but an attempt to draw in more life.

The Flying Dutchman reveals the pitfalls of meeting your idol or fantasy figure amid the imperfections of the real world. Despite his triumphant “I have found my salvation!” Delavan’s Dutchman seems caught up in his own brooding more than his attraction to Senta. That arguably fits his character, since he turns against her at the first, groundless sign of infidelity, rejecting her before she has the chance to disappoint him.

The Atlanta Opera’s The Flying Dutchman includes a chorus of more than 50 and offers a lavish stage spectacle. It hews toward a conventional presentation of the singers, rather than emphasize a subtler, more theatrical exploration of the characters. When the Dutchman and Senta finally meet, they stare at each other like statues for the duration of Daland’s song. When they sing together, they probably spend half the time looking away from each other. That may not be an unusual form of staging, but it undermines the overpowering love the pair supposedly shares. The Flying Dutchman is a stirring, completely impressive show, but it doesn’t necessarily rock the boat.

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