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Dutchman Red Lighting

Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) – opera by Richard Wagner

A Man Adrift

Mason Gates, Eugene Brancoveanu, Philip Skinner.

Mason Gates, Eugene Brancoveanu, Philip Skinner.

Fantasy, love, greed, betrayal, and redemption are a good check list for operatic themes, and Richard Wagner embraces them all in this early breakthrough work.  Wagner’s later, and lengthier, operas are more noted by critics, but for a compact narrative with beautiful music from beginning to end, “The Flying Dutchman” is the ticket. It is the choice of Livermore Valley Opera to launch its 25th anniversary celebration, and the company responds with a well crafted and highly entertaining production.

Inspired by a tumultuous sea voyage from Riga to London, Wagner’s most immediate source for his libretto was “Memoirs of Mr. von Schnabelwopski,” by Heinrich Heine, who in turn was influenced by folk tales of the Wandering Jew. Here we find Wagner’s first experimentation with leitmotifs and his first use of legend as the basis for the storyline, both of which would become touchstones for his later canon. In addition to melodious arias and ensembles, Wagner’s musical genius captures the drama of conflicts, the rumbling of the sea, and the onomatopoeic laughter of women.

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Edith Dowd (seated far left), Marie Plette (standing)

As the punishment for blasphemy, the Dutchman was doomed to eternally ply the seas alone in a ghost ship, save for one day each seven years. The setting of the story is one such occasion. Only the fidelity until death of a woman would release him from his endless voyage. During nighttime storm along the Norwegian coast, Captain Daland’s merchant ship is unable to make its final heading into its home port after being at sea for some time. This being the Dutchman’s rare opportunity to engage with humanity, he grapples his way on board the Norwegian vessel. In hopes of breaking his curse, he reveals the riches that he holds and offers them to Daland in return for the hand of his daughter. Though his daughter, Senta, has been courted by a huntsman, Erik, Daland cannot resist the riches the Dutchman has offered and agrees.

Noted baritone, Philip Skinner as the Dutchman, is a towering figure with a dark, opaque, and commanding Wagnerian heldenbaritone voice. The negotiation over the daughter occurs in the baritone duet “Wie? Hört’ ich recht?” (Did I hear correctly?), in which the title character maintains his dignity while the spellbound Daland becomes giddy with thoughts of riches. Eugene Brancoveanu is Daland. His lyric baritone with clarion coloration creates a striking vocal contrast with Skinner. In cases where the two baritones have similar vocal color, the parts lack differentiation, but here we are treated to splendid distinction. Each performer is top rate in singing and acting throughout, but it is an extra pleasure to hear them together.

Philip Skinner, Mraie Plette, David Gustafson.

Philip Skinner (rear), Marie Plette, David Gustafson (fore).

When we meet Senta, Daland’s daughter, we find that she holds a flame for the legendary Dutchman, whose picture appears in the family home. Marie Plette, whose greatest triumphs have been in Italian lyric soprano roles, shows she is equally competent in the dramatic vocals required in Wagner’s works. She nails Senta’s halting and powerful strophic ballad, “Johohoe! Johohohoe!” which is a narrative about the Dutchman’s plight. At its end, she reveals that she is the woman to join with this pale apparition she has never known, realizing she must die to lead him to redemption. Interestingly, her striking music, rather than that of the title character, is the central theme of the score, and leitmotifs draw from it.

When Erik hears Senta’s words, he is horrified and pleads with her to be his. David Gustafson as the spurned lover rounds out the lead principals and provides a beautiful, plaintive tenor voice to deliver the role.

The opera includes male, female, and mixed choruses with several appearances throughout. Strongest are the women’s chorus as spinners, supporting Senta’s ballad, and the mixed chorus in the finale. Conductor Alexander Katsman leads over thirty instrumentalists who effectively create a Wagnerian sound less full than a big house would offer. Minor opening night jitters had no effect on the appreciation of the overall production.

dutchman-ghoulsKudos also go to Stage Director Olivia Stapp and all her creative designers and staff. Costuming and movement fill and embellish the space, providing an appropriate overall look. The staging is spare but highly effective. The backdrop is flanked by two massive structures of wooden slats representing Daland’s sails, and a ship’s wheel is at center stage. But the pièce de résistance is the great array of truly imposing graphic projections on the back wall that enliven the set (see in photos). Gloomy depictions of sea, shore, and sky fashion an ominous milieu. Among the notable representations is the opening sequence, in which the projected Dutchman’s ship grows and grows as it nears and creates the sense of enveloping Daland’s ship within its grasp.

Congratulations to LVO on its 25th Anniversary and for this worthy and memorable production. For those who do not live in the neighborhood, it is well worth the journey.

Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) by Richard Wagner is produced by Livermore Valley Opera and plays at Bankhead Theatre, 2400 First Street, Livermore, through October 2, 2016.

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