"The Flying Dutchman" is Richard Wagner's most accessible opera, turning the dark legend of a blasphemous ship captain doomed to sail the seas for eternity into a haunting love story with moralistic themes. Its premiere in 1843 put Wagner on the map as a mature composer, demonstrating his musical voice, poetic leanings and epic ambitions. It finally revealed the stamp of genius and affected the development of Western music for decades. There are soaring duets and trios, lush ensemble numbers and heroic arias, as well as Wagner's hallmark leitmotifs, or recurring musical themes. If you've never heard Wagner because you assumed his operatic oeuvre to be overly long and pretentious, you should treat yourself to this production, which is a delight for all the senses, and certainly no longer than the third "Pirates of the Caribbean" film.
The Dutchman is a forlorn, melancholy figure in Wagner's version, which is based on a story by Heinrich Heine. But whereas Heine used the legend for humor and irony, Wagner fashioned it into a serious drama championing redemption through the love of a faithful woman. The love object is Senta, daughter of another ship captain that the Dutchman meets through a twist of fate. The Norwegian captain promises his daughter's hand when he sees the Dutchman's riches and proud bearing.
The Dutchman seeks only freedom from his curse and demands to know of Senta if she knows the true meaning of faithfulness — because without it, he will be doomed to continue wandering the seas. Senta has been harboring an obsession with the Dutchman legend since she was a child; it's not much of a stretch for her to commit herself to the "pale stranger" her father brings home who happens to look exactly like her portrait of the legend. There is, however, a flesh-and-blood suitor, Erik, who appeals to Senta's earthier nature and her prior promise to him. Much melodrama ensues before the tragic but redemptive end.
West Bay Opera's current production plays up the watery context of the legend, pulling out all the stops for special effects to put the audience on the high seas. Video and lighting designs by Chad Bonaker combine with nautical images by Peter Crompton to provide a rich visual feast, matching the lofty music. I wavered between loving the effects and occasionally finding them distracting, as when they somewhat obscure the faces of the singers in the famous Hollander-Senta duet. Mostly the effects are an exciting enhancement to the stage action and much to be commended.
Set design, by Peter Crompton, is equally beautiful, carrying the nautical theme further with effective ships at harbor and a lovely masted and sail-draped home for Senta's obsession. Costumes by Callie Floor deserve special mention for capturing character in a delightful Brothers Grimm manner.
But opera depends primarily on the music and this production has that in spades. The principal singers I heard at Sunday's matinee performance were nothing short of superb, and I'm betting that would be true of the alternating cast as well. Douglas Nagel's velvety bass-baritone tears up the stage with emotional depth and powerhouse vocals as the tragic Hollander. Paula Goodman Wilder, as the adoring Senta, charms the audience with her youthful infatuation and then wows them with her vigorous soprano. Wagner's music demands both range and a full-bodied sound from his singers and Wilder is clearly up to the challenge.
Benjamin Bongers as Erik, Peter Graham as the Norwegian captain Daland, Omar Gutierrez Crook as the Steersman and Donna Olson as Senta's servant Mary all gave stellar performances in their secondary roles, matching the excellence of the principals. Bongers has a pure, buttery tenor that I hope to hear again on the West Bay Opera stage.
The ensemble of villagers, seamen and seamstresses supported beautifully in Wagner's sumptuous choral numbers, demonstrating the depth of musical talent in our area. And the orchestra, under the baton of director Jose Luis Moscovich, sounded better than ever in what is some of the most challenging orchestral music written.
Kudos to director David F. Ostwald and everyone involved for this fine production that spares no effort in bringing us a remarkable work by an operatic genius.
What: "Der Fliegende Hollander," an opera by Richard Wagner, presented by West Bay Opera.
Where: At the Lucie Stern Theatre at 1305 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto.
When: Through June 1, with 8 p.m. shows Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday.
Cost: Tickets range from $15 to $50.
Info: Call 650-424-9999 or go to http://www.wbopera.org .
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