There haven’t been many Wagner productions in Boston—mostly the forces called for are too big for Boston’s smaller operatic venues (its Opera House was torn down in 1958). But marking the Wagner bicentennial this year is a new production of his first real masterpiece, The Flying Dutchman (Der Fliegende Holländer), by the Boston Lyric Opera (at the Shubert Theatre through May 5). Sarah Caldwell did it twice with her Opera Company of Boston and the Lyric itself did a concert version in 1990. The last time we heard it here was in 2005, during James Levine’s inaugural season as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra—his only concert opera as part of that season. But the concerts were not without problems. Though Finnish bass-baritone Juha Uusitalo made a magnificent Dutchman, inflamed vocal cords forced soprano Deborah Voigt, as Senta, to miss the first two of her three scheduled appearances. Her substitute, Elizabeth Byrne, got through those two concerts, but only barely. Then Voigt, with a history of working under Levine (she recorded it with him in 1994), returned with a blazing account of the mesmerized heroine, whose overworked imagination (the only person in her Norwegian fishing village with any imagination at all) is obsessed with saving the legendary sailor doomed to roam the seas until he finds a woman of absolute fidelity. Voigt’s performance may not have been as nuanced as Uusitalo’s, but every thrilling note seemed filled with dramatic intent. (That was the last time I felt that about any of her Wagner.)
The most inventive Dutchman I’ve ever seen was Caldwell’s first version, in 1970, at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium—hardly suitable for Wagner. Yet being pinned to the wall usually got Caldwell’s creative juices flowing. She (and her celebrated team of set designers, Helen Pond and Herbert Senn) turned the auditorium itself into the Dutchman’s ship, and we were all on it. The sailors hauled their ropes in the central cross-aisle. And the Dutchman (the powerful Thomas Stewart) piloted the ship from the high ledge above the right side of the stage. Richard Leacock and the MIT film department provided projections that made the entire audience feels as if we were rushing through the waves. The great Phyllis Curtin was Senta. Profound and searing, she played a woman totally absorbed by her obsession, and helpless before it. Her voice soared above the orchestra, with uncountable nuances of coloration. Not even Caldwell could duplicate this success a decade later after she moved into the Opera House.
The crowning glory of Boston Lyric Opera’s concert version of Dutchman was baritone Roger Roloff in the title role. Roloff came to Boston’s attention as Wotan in the BLO’s otherwise amateurish Ring Cycle. As the Dutchman, he was a commanding and heartbreaking figure. (He’s now retired from singing, living in New Paltz, New York, and writing nature poetry).
The Lyric’s new fully-staged Dutchman is a very mixed bag. Though several of the featured singers are excellent, neither of the leads is as good as Curtin or Stewart or Uusitalo or Voigt or Roloff. American bass-baritone Alfred Walker, who made a tremendous impression as Gershwin’s Porgy at Tanglewood (and less so in the repeat performance at Symphony Hall), came close. His vibrant voice has great tonal warmth. But he emphasizes the zombie-like quality of the Dutchman rather than his kaleidoscopic inter-torments and momentary joy at finding Senta. On opening night, he ran out of steam—and voice—before the final climax.
Young British soprano Allison Oakes has sung Senta in Germany and is about to take on another heavy Wagnerian role, Gutrune in Götterdämmerung. There’s some quality to the voice itself, but she spent too much of opening night screaming rather than singing her high notes, and not always on pitch (the Globe’s Jeremy Eichler feared her singing “edged at times toward the reckless”). Her dramatic intensity is commendable, but her stagey, silent-movie gestures undermine her believability.
American bass Gregory Frank, as Senta’s father, rather veers between aspects of his character—dignity and comic greed—rather than uniting them. Tenor Chad Shelton is strong as Senta’s determined lover, and mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero and tenor Alan Schneider do well in significant smaller roles. Best of all is the chorus, especially the male chorus as both the living and ghostly sailors.
What gives this production its distinction, however, is the performing edition. This marks the American premiere of the critical edition of Wagner’s original 1841 version (the one Otto Klemperer chose for his legendary EMI recording), which was never actually performed in Wagner’s lifetime. Wagner’s original setting was not Norway but Scotland (hence Daland is here Donald, and Senta’s suitor is George not Eric). As BLO conductor David Angus says in his program note, it’s tighter, simpler, more direct in its musical story-telling, avoiding Wagner’s later additions of music (including the opera’s only harp part) that italicize (over-italicize?) and sentimentalize the spiritual transfiguration of Senta’s self-sacrifice, killing herself in order to save the Dutchman from eternal torment. Opening night, thanks to Angus’s tight and forceful conducting, the performance ran as Wagner originally intended, without an intermission (a non-stop two hours and 20 minutes).
So there’s a certain painful irony that stage director Michael Cavanagh decided to deal with this faster-paced, simpler action by adding a “backstory” (the very thing that enraged Stephen Sondheim when he heard what director Diane Paulus wanted to do for Porgy and Bess at the American Repertory Theatre—fortunately she ended up cutting most of these accretions before the production moved to New York).
This whole “backstory” idea has become one of the more noxious contemporary clichés. Why do directors feel audiences need to know more than the composer and librettist (one and the same in the case of The Flying Dutchman) have to tell us? Why not treasure the mystery that is actually part of the music? My heart sank when the curtain went up on this Dutchman at the beginning of Wagner’s great overture—music suggesting a dangerous storm, a ship (or a mind) racing relentlessly forward through roiling waves—and I was forced to look at a young girl bent over a woman’s body mopping up her blood! What did this have to do with the music I was hearing? What did it have to do with Wagner’s own libretto? What hubris for a stage director—whose job is to bring the music to life—to rewrite the opera. (When Wagner wanted a backstory, he added it with a vengeance—virtually writing the verse libretto for each of the four operas in his Ring Cycle in reverse chronological order.)
I’ve come to loathe staged overtures, mainly because too often they don’t acknowledge the music. (Appalling—or ludicrous—that in the Met’s new production of Verdi’s A Masked Ball, what we saw during the stealthy, sinister music in the overture that foreshadows the two conspirators at the center of the plot was the effete page Oscar flouncing around the stage.) Why can’t contemporary stage directors trust that an opera audience is actually capable of listening to music? Cavanaugh’s staging of the Flying Dutchman overture is a particularly un-musical examples of this impulse.
Unfortunately, the stage director’s “idea” was only just beginning. For this pared down, faster-moving version, which eschews Wagner’s own later accretions, Cavanaugh actually adds two “characters” Wagner himself never dreamed of: a seven-year-old and a 14-year-old Senta, who keep appearing conspicuously (like the symbolic little girl in the red raincoat turning up over and over again in Schindler’s List). At the end, instead of jumping into the sea, as the legend has it, Senta here slits her throat. “Good taste is timeless,” a friend of mine was fond of saying. I asked the company about this ending, and got this reply:
There are certainly other productions out there where Senta does not jump into the ocean. The director Michael Cavanagh felt that one of the most significant differences in our original version is her suicide w/o the lengthy harp redemption theme that follows the later version. Dramatically and musically the opera ends with her suicide, whether jumping into the ocean or otherwise. He chose to make that a strong statement.
But what does all this tell us? That Senta’s vivid and obsessive imagination may have been the result of a childhood trauma? That she may have been abused by her father? (At one point, he and the Dutchman are standing back-to-back—are they manifestations of the same dominating male figure?) Why should any of this interest us, especially since these all-too-familiar Freudian tropes serve only to confuse the story, to exchange powerful myth for gauche psychologizing? Isn’t the music powerful enough to tell its own story? For 170 years hasn’t Wagner been enough of a musical dramatist to hold our interest without this claptrap? Why shouldn’t we trust him?
There ought to be a restraining order.
More’s the pity, since this is otherwise a compelling production. Veteran set designer John Conklin (this is his BLO opera in three years) has opened up the stage and filled it with large moving pieces, especially a dark red abstract sailing vessel that seems made up of metallic sails. There lots of metal here: bleachers, horizontal pipes that move up and down, complicated scaffolding, and high catwalks. This is all a bit techy for what’s supposed to represent a Scottish village. (I’m not sure what the women are actually doing during the famous Spinning Chorus, but they certainly don’t seem to be spinning.) One striking touch is the continual re-appearance of a doorway—flat on the stage, up in the air, at the top of the bleachers. It frames a large silhouette of the Dutchman, who at times walks through it. It’s creepily effective, though in the final scene, there’s probably too much traffic, adding scenic clutter to the directorial confusion.
Of course, updatings and other imaginative directorial touches can sometimes bring a classic opera closer to home. Think Peter Sellars, Patrice Chéreau, Robert Carsen, and Caldwell. But since the inception of the Boston Lyric Opera, and under several different regimes, too many of its stage directors have exhibited this tendency toward what Michael Cavanaugh euphemistically calls “reexamination” (not “illumination”), and too often it has come at the expense of the opera.