"I can listen to the music in my home and imagine the most amazing imagery," Tony Award-winning Lion King puppeteer Julie Taymor told the Los Angeles Times in 1995, when her version of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman opened at the Los Angeles Music Center Opera. "But quite often, when I go to the opera and then I see it, I'd rather close my eyes, because you can't match the music."
Indeed, her production -- re-created at the Wortham Center by L.A. Opera stage director Christopher Harlan -- bears little resemblance to traditional versions of the heavy opera, with hulking ships that never move and mere mortal performers who only walk on land. Taymor's "amazing imagery" includes, among other things, a skeletal hull that pitches and rolls through watery light, a group of ghoulish Dutchman backup dancers, a Wandering Jew and a flying adolescent girl dressed in white.
Taymor's newfangled Dutchman opened to lousy reviews in Los Angeles (one traditionalist even threw a tomato when the director took her curtain call) and ran into technical difficulties at Friday night's Houston opening -- but at a smoother Sunday matinee here, the bravos outshouted the boos. It's true that none of these effects could have been envisioned by the composer, and that on occasion Taymor goes overboard (excuse the pun). But if you can get past a few goofy antics -- such as Taymor's signature (but here superfluous) seagull puppets, and a storm sequence in which dancers spin from ropes as if they're under a big top -- the whole is visually stunning.
The action begins at the overture, with a foretelling of the opera's story of a blasphemous sailor doomed to roam the seas eternally unless he finds a woman who will love him faithfully until death. Before a scrim of dark, rolling clouds, a young girl (dancer and assistant choreographer Michelle Johnston) alternately plays with a red-sailed ship and watches a bearded old man (James Alba) slowly chase an empty chair -- his resting place -- across the stage on a watery conveyer belt. The girl isn't Senta, the heroine of the piece -- but according to Taymor, she represents Senta, and also the ideal of "Romantic obsessive love"; likewise, the old man isn't the Dutchman, but he represents both the Dutchman and the Wandering Jew, whom Taymor believes prefigured the Dutchman.
With the stroke of a paintbrush (Senta, in this modernized production, is not just a sacrifice, she's also an artist), they are united. The girl supports the weight of the wanderer and helps him with his luggage as they exit in step.
These two Taymor-added characters return to the stage throughout the opera proper to act out parts of the libretto, sometimes to ill effect: The sailors sing of the south wind; the young girl is dressed too obviously in white gauze and wings. And when the bearded old man finally catches up to his chair, we're in need of a rest from the shtick. But the acrobatic entanglements of Johnston and the black-clad dancer Jamy Woodbury during a nightmare sequence were passionate, and Senta's final, redemptive, head-over-heels slo-mo plunge into the ocean (also performed by Johnston) was breathtaking.
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The aerial choreography is so well done, it makes you wonder what music-video choreographer Daniel Ezralow was thinking with his ground-level dancing. The Dutchman's white-faced, black-clad, mixed-gender "crew" spins, sways, contracts, crawls, leaps, rolls and forms simplistic "V" formations with steps fitting for a collegiate modern-dance class, but merely odd in Wagner's opera.
The musical performances don't suffer difficulties as a result of Taymor's debatable production decisions. The roles of the Dutchman and Senta -- the real Dutchman and Senta, not Taymor's doubles -- are not only sung beautifully but acted passionately by German baritone Franz Grundheber (who also performed the lead role in Los Angeles) and American soprano Sue Patchell. Patchell's frenzied telling of the Dutchman's plight and Grundheber's stoic reluctance to hope for salvation are particularly memorable -- as is the folksy rhythm and stylized laughter of the chorus women in Act Two's spinning song, and the humor with which bass Gabor Andrasy plays the greedy Norwegian sea captain Daland.
But as with Titanic, the boat is the star of this show. Though the Dutchman's doomed vessel is small and primitive (little more than a burned-out canoe), Daland's central, skeletal craft looms large before gorgeous windswept skies -- three sections of its great whalebone-shaped bows rocking perilously as steersmen scramble from one side of the shifting deck to the other. Wagner might have turned in his grave, but when the creepy contraption was unveiled amid flashes of lightning and billows of seafoam smoke, Sunday's audience was stunned, hooked and ready to forgive Taymor's occasional lapses of artistic license.
Houston Grand Opera's production of The Flying Dutchman runs through November 8 at the Wortham Theater Center's Brown Theater, Texas at Smith, 227-ARTS. Tickets $20-$175.