Reviewed by Judy Richter
Although the sea and ships are powerful presences in Richard Wagner's Der Fliegende Hollä;nder, San Francisco Opera's new production physically relegates them to the background. Created by Pierre Strosser for Grand Théâtre de Genève and owned by SFO, this production is stark. Capt. Daland's vessel is unseen. Instead, the sailors tie heavy ropes angling in from the wings, as if the ship were offstage. Behind them are high, two-tiered gray wall panels. When the Dutchman's ship appears, Joël Hourbeigt's light design, as realized by Christian Pinaud, represents it with a red glow and flashing lights that cast shadows of a ship's rigging against the walls.
The women's Spinning Chorus that opens Part II finds the women's chorus working not on their spinning wheels but on two large sails spread on the floor. These sails remain on the floor throughout Part II, getting in the way of the other performers and forcing them to step carefully so that they don't trip. This part of the production needs rethinking to avoid a distraction for both performers and audience.
Looking as if they come from the latter half of the 19th century, probably later than the opera's admittedly unspecified time, Patrice Cauchetier's costumes are as stark as the sets. The women wear plain, high-cut dresses in dark grays and browns. The men are mostly in workingmen's black. The Dutchman, however, wears what appears to be businessman's attire with a crisp white shirt, neatly knotted black tie, and black jacket, overcoat and pants.
Given the austerity of the stage picture, one must assume that Strosser and his artistic collaborators wanted to make sure the focus stayed on the characters, their emotions and relationships as portrayed in Wagner's music. If that's their intent, they succeed. Stage director Stephen Taylor, conductor Michael Boder and a strong cast put the emphasis squarely on the music drama. The result is an absorbing evening of opera.
Although this production received tepid reviews at its Sept. 30 opening, by Oct. 17 it apparently had come together, for the singing was noteworthy, even moving at times. American James Morris started somewhat drily as the Dutchman, but his singing increased in warmth, power and expression as the evening progressed. Likewise, German bass Franz Hawlata as Daland had a dry tone to start, but his voice opened during the evening and allowed him to deliver a most satisfactory performance. He and Morris had some powerful moments together in their duet at the end of Part I.
American soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet was a Senta possessed with the story of the Flying Dutchman and obsessed with the idea that she could save him. Her voice had the strength and beauty to meet the demands of the music. Taylor's staging keeps a wide distance between Senta and the Dutchman when they meet, but tentative steps closer allow the tension to build and reveal the growing attraction between them until finally they embrace. Senta's devoted Erik is played by Swedish tenor Gösta Winbergh. His voice was high and light, yet it had the power needed for Wagnerian music. The cast was nicely completed by American tenor Raymond Very as the Steersman and American mezzo-soprano Josepha Gayer as Mary.
The SFO Chorus, especially the men, plays a major role in this production. The men's singing is powerful, masculine. The women are their match in the mixed choruses, but the Spinning Chorus needed more heft at the Oct. 17 performance. The top sopranos sounded thin, strained. Boder did well in the pit, eliciting a thrilling overture from the SFO Orchestra and supporting the singers and the drama throughout the evening.
Although purists might long for more reality and action, this is a most interesting, effective production, one that tends to hold the audience in its spell and makes the 2½ intermissionless hours go by much more quickly than one might expect.
For more information, see the San Francisco Opera home page.