Der Fliegende Holländer Review

‘Flying Dutchman’ opera at Garde was worth the wait
By Milton Moore
Publication: The Day

New London – The Connecticut Lyric Opera gave New London its first taste of a fully staged Richard Wagner opera Saturday night – and it was delicious.

On this bicentennial of Wagner’s birth, the CLO opened its 11th season here with a performance of “Der Fliegende Holländer” (“The Flying Dutchman”) at the Garde Art Center that was its most fully realized, fully satisfying production yet. The principal voices were, as usual, up to the challenges and often thrilling. The 20-voice chorus was, by far, the strongest and most accomplished set of choristers yet. The stage direction by Andy Ottoson was the company’s finest yet, both in the tense emotional stand-offs between the key protagonists and in the long choruses, where the action remained animated without seeming forced or frenetic.

And most of all, the performance soared on the wonderfully paced, powerful yet nuanced performance by an augmented Connecticut Virtuosi Orchestra, led by CLO Artistic Director Adrian Sylveen.

The sum of these parts reflects Wagner’s then-radical approach to 19th century opera, an ethos he called “Gesamtkunstwerk” (“complete work of art”). In “Dutchman,” the orchestra is not an accompaniment to the singers; rather, the singers are voices in a much larger orchestral sweep. This first taste of Wagner’s through-composition left the audience at the Garde uncertain of when to clap, since the opera contains no sturdy cadences that end set pieces and cue the applause.

As the curtain fell, the applause should have been for Sylveen.

Completed in 1842, inspired by his experience of a storm at sea off the Scandinavian coast, “Dutchman” was Wagner’s first mature opera, and it contained many of his future trademarks. The opera uses leitmotifs, tying characters and concepts to musical themes, and it relies on a plot theme that was to carry through almost all of his future works: a tortured, often cursed, lead male character who can be redeemed only through the love of a pure woman.

In “Dutchman,” the title character has been cursed to sail the seas forever, making landfall once every seven years. His only hope of breaking the curse is to find a wife who will be devoted to him, and that will free him – a devil’s bargain for sure, since freedom means death. The Dutchman lands in a small village this time, where a young woman named Senta has been pining over a portrait of the Dutchman, obsessed by his legend.

In the title role, bass-baritone Steve Fredericks embodied a tortured, quiet dignity, like a character in a Bergman film. Wearing a dark, decade-ambiguous 20th century suit and top hat, he commanded the stage in Act 1 as he poured out the tale of his curse, thundering its final lines, “You stars above, cease your course / Let extinction fall on me,” as the Dutchman’s motifs swelled in the brass. Throughout, he balanced reticence and emotion, just as his vocal range balanced a rich, resonant lower range with a clarion power at the top. His final, raging scene, from the bow of the well-designed ship prow, with side-lighting casting his shadow on its blood-red sail, was Wagner’s “complete work” – vocal drama, stagecraft and orchestral heft all in tune.

As Senta, CLO prima donna soprano Jurate Svedaite, fresh off her role as soloist in Strauss’ “The Four Last Songs” with the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra in April, proved again her versatility and her flair for plumbing deep emotion in duets. Her Act 2 duets with her frustrated suitor, Erik, sung by tenor Daniel Juarez, and with the Dutchman were the vocal high points of the performance. As she and Fredericks circled each other warily, lost in their doubts – “Is this a dream?” she sings – her lyricism turned the grand stage drama into musical intimacy.

Following up on his riveting performance as Don José in last season’s CLO “Carmen,” Juarez almost stole the show Saturday, his full-throated tenor filling the hall with anger and frustration in Act 2 as Senta sings of her sympathy for the Dutchman’s fate, and he rages, “Does my suffering not move you more?”

The orchestra, augmented to 32 pieces with trombones, a tuba and some doubling, had enough weight to carry the score, yet was of a scale that the voices were never hidden behind its wall of sound. Animating the drama with teasing figures as Erik recounts his dream, perfectly paced in its halting phrases as the Dutchman and Senta are alone for the first time, Sylveen’s orchestra excelled at the subtleties.

The supporting principals – Nathan Resika as Senta’s father, Daland; Cris Frisco as the steersman; and the fine young contralto (so impressive in last season’s Verdi Requiem) Heather Petri as the nurse – were all up to Sylveen’s high orchestral standard.

Ottoson’s stagecraft had no false moments, getting a lot from a little. His use of lighting created startling quick cuts: flashing from warm to cool in a burst in Act 2 as Senta tells the Dutchman’s story to the yarn spinning women’s chorus and popping to blood red in Act 3 as Daland’s sailors pull down dark masks to become the Dutchman’s ghostly crew (also an effective ploy to make double-duty of the male chorus). His small devices for the choruses, such as the spinners playfully rolling red yarn at one another or the sailors mimicking heave-ho’s with short lengths of rope, were spare and spot-on.

High marks go to Chorus Master Dara Blackstone for some excellent ensembles.

The 170-year wait for “The Dutchman” to make landfall here was rewarded amply by Sylveen and crew.

m.moore@theday.com

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