Opera is about so much more than the story – it’s the entire theatrical experience: sets, costumes, voices, music, emotion. But me, I’m about the story. And the story of The Flying Dutchman is pure Smart Bitches F+ crazysauce. In other words, delightful.
If you are, as I was before attending Seattle Opera’s production of The Flying Dutchman, unfamiliar with the story, let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.
Battling a huge storm, A Dutch sea captain swears a swear. Old Lucifer plays Maleficent and curses him with the gift of eternal life at sea, but a good angel intervenes like the last good fairy with a redemption through true love clause. Once every seven years, the Dutchman can go ashore, where he has one night to find said bride. Centuries and dozens of brides later (apparently it’s easy to find a bride in one night, but that ghost crew is too, too tempting?) his ship pulls up next to Captain Daland’s ship, and they hang out. Daland, drunk and impressed by the Dutchman’s wealth, agrees to marry his daughter to the Dutchman, despite not knowing his name or why he is “exiled from his homeland,” and even though the dude is clearly suffering from extreme depression. Daland’s steersman is silently horrified, but he’s in trouble for sleeping on the job and doesn’t say anything.
Back at home, Daland’s daughter Senta is obsessed with the legend of the Flying Dutchman. She spends all her time staring at a painting of him and everyone kind of thinks she’s crazy. She has a boyfriend, but we can’t tell if she really digs him or if she just makes nice because he’s always waving a gun around like he’s crazy.
Daland comes home with the Dutchman, whom Senta recognizes and immediately agrees to marry. A wedding feast is set up on Daland’s ship that very night, but before Senta even shows up the party turns into a riot when the guests realize the Dutchman’s crew are ghosts. The steersman goes crazy.
Senta and her family show up at the same time as gun-toting boyfriend Erik. He reminds her of the good times, and the Dutchman, overhearing, thinks Senta has already betrayed him. (I guess centuries on a ghost ship have not only rusted his people skills but his sense of time, since Senta has barely had enough time to change clothes since he last saw her.) Anyway, he reveals his true identity and she’s like, “I knew it all along, and I am the girl to break the curse.” They argue a bit about the details of contract – did her oath to the Dutchman count as “before God” – and then she taunts crazy Erik with the Dutchman’s picture. Erik shoots the picture, killing Senta behind it, and presumably freeing the Dutchman from his endless wandering.
Wagner’s original opera was all one long act, perhaps because he was afraid that audiences would bolt if given the chance. He later had to write transitions because audiences demanded pee breaks and snacks. But this production returns to the no-intermission original, and it is true that curtains-up onstage scene changes gave the story momentum and continuity often lacking in opera. In other words, it kept things moving so you don’t have as much time to rescind suspension of disbelief.
At the beginning of scene two, I was still struggling with the whackadoodle, but Daniel Sumegi‘s yummy bass gave Daland a humanity that perfectly matched the absurdity of the story. He totally captured TFW you go off to sea and get drunk and promise your daughter to a stranger and now it’s time to introduce them and you want to back out but your pockets are full of his gold. “Hi Sweetie, Look what I brought you – a husband. Don’t know his name but he’s really rich and why don’t I just leave you two alone to get to know each other.”
The secret ingredient of a successful crazysauce is commitment. Seattle Opera holds nothing back, so the audience is free to fly with the Dutchman. Why is he flying? Whatever moves the Dutchman, the singers’ voices do soar. Awkward segue but let’s move on.
Erik’s tenor (sung by Nikolai Schukoff) was enough for my daughter to forgive his murder of Senta. And Wendy Bryn Harmer‘s Senta – Holy Hell that woman has pipes! Opera fans make much of singers’ ability to fill the space with their unamplified voices, but McCaw Hall was barely big enough to contain Harmer’s soprano. And I don’t just mean in a Lena Lamont “Sounds good and loud” way. Her high notes were as solid as the low ones and no matter where she was in her range, the sound never thinned out. Although I didn’t attend on a day when Seattle favorite Greer Grimsley performed, I’m sure it surprises no one that my personal favorite was the Dutchman, a bass-baritone beautifully performed by Alfred Walker. It’s not easy to give such low notes much inflection, especially when your role is as much a symbolic ideal (of weariness, no less) as a character. But Walker had all the emotion and dynamics of a tenor – just deliciously low. Steersman Colin Ainsworth was mostly silent, a visual character serving much the same purpose as the priest in Maillot’s Romeo et Juliette, but when he did sing, he reminded me of Arnor Dan, whom I love.
As always at Seattle Opera, the sets were a miracle of minimalist utilitarian design, with a single wood paneled set serving as both a ship and the Captain’s home. The canted floor represented the physical imbalance of the ship in the first and third acts and the characters’ psychological imbalance on land in the second. A circular staircase was a ship’s ladder, a domestic staircase and a literal stairway to heaven.
I question the decision to put the heroine in a dowdy 20th century day dress, but it’s a small complaint.
And of course there’s Wagner. Wagner’s music is like Evan Williams – there’s no subtlety, but it’s easy drinking. And it pairs wonderfully with crazysauce.