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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Opera Review: When Her Ship Comes In

The Met revives Der fliegende Holländer.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
I will leave you, loudly: Amber Wagner and Michael Volle in a scene from
Der fliegender Holländer. Photo by Richard Termine © 2017 The Metropolitan Opera.

There's been a lot of excitement about the Metropolitan Opera's late-season revival of Der fliegende Holländer ("The Flying Dutchman") which opened last week and was seen by this writer at Saturday's matinée performance. This revival marks the first Wagner excursions at the Met for both Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the company's newly anointed incoming music director, and baritone Michael Volle, who has been tabbed by general manager Peter Gelb as both Wotan and Hans Sachs in seasons to come.

However, the Met's hype machine is (to quote Raiders of the Lost Ark) "looking in the wrong place." The strongest performance here came not from these gentlemen but from soprano Amber Wagner, incandescent and a real discovery as Senta, the opera's obsessive, suicidal heroine. Ms. Wagner's entry in Act II brought floods of sound, in a voice that plowed through the waves of orchestration to crest in a bright, ringing top. Her performance got better as the show progressed, climaxing with upper notes that thrilled the ear and recalled the stars of old.

Mr. Volle, whose first role at the Met was Mandryka in a 2014 revival of Arabella plays a similar character here: a stranger from a foreign land with trust issues when it comes to women. He eschewed bellow, blast and scenery-chewingfor a softer, sadder tone that caught the plight of the opera's title character. The Dutchman is a tragic figure, sentenced to sail 'round the world until eternity. In his opening "Die frist ist um," sung on a precarious fire ladder above the stage, one got the sense of the weight that this man carries, a responsibility not only for his soul but for those of his cursed crew.

In the second act, the baritone's sensitive performance was the perfect foil for Ms. Wagner's histrionics. Their Act II duet showed that the characters were indeed destined to be together, especially when Mr. Volle took the brakes off and opened his voice in a flood of dark tone. For once, the third act of this very short opera seemed too short, as the final trio erupted and Senta sacrificed herself.

Franz-Joseph Selig 's Daland (a rewrite of Rocco in Beethoven's Fidelio) was bumptuous and funny. As Erik, Senta's hapless (and mortal) boyfriend, A.J. Glueckert did his best to remind everyone that this run marks his Met debut, singing with clarion power and more personality than is usually seen in a character that Wagner essentially borrowed from Weber's Der Freischütz. Tenor Ben Bliss gave a nice turn as the Steersman. Dolora Zajick continued her very long string of Met seasons as Mary.

Wagner relies heavily on the chorus in this early opera, and the Met's cadre did the work proud. The crisp "yo-ho-ho" rhythms in the first act gave color to life aboard Daland's ship, and the famous "spinning chorus" in Act II came off as appropriately oppressive and conformist. In the third act, the composer pits the good people of the Norwegian coast against the ghosts of the Dutchman's ship in a bold double chorus, which came off as both suspenseful and not at all silly.

Finally, we come to Mr. Nézet-Séguin. While his rendering of the overture did not quite cause the seas to boil and churn it was nonetheless impressive, with roaring brass and shimmering, divided strings that sounded happy to be working under his baton. More importantly, he worked closely with the singers throughout, cuing Ms. Wagner's phrases and leading the choruses through the complexities of Act III. If this is the future of Wagner conducting at the Met, it will be perfectly serviceable in the seasons to come. 

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