How grand it is to have Houston Grand Opera back where it belongs – in its own home, that glorious aural cocoon that is the Wortham Theater. It's been an entire year since Hurricane Harvey devastated the downtown theater, and while we applaud HGO's pluck and ingenuity in carving out a space in the cavernous George R. Brown Convention Center, their own Resilience Theater, we're ecstatic the company is back where it belongs, and where it sounds more glorious than ever.
What better way to show off its orchestra, its soloists, its magnificent chorus, its production wow factor than in Richard Wagner's sea-splashed The Flying Dutchman (1843), Wagner's first mature work that defines his distinctive voice. It was a huge international hit ever since its Dresden premiere and set Wagner firmly on his path to conquer the opera world and make it his own.
In its storm-tossed music, haunting choral work, use of leitmotifs, and dramatic, stratospheric vocal writing, Dutchman holds the seeds of what is yet to come: Tannhauser, Lohengrin, Tristan and Isolde, Meistersinger, The Ring, Parsifal. You can hear brief swirling echoes of these future, more masterful operas, but the descriptive orchestral writing, the chromaticism, even his primal and idiosyncratic literary themes, are all in evidence. The Wagner style is most front and center, and it sounds deliriously good under maestro Patrick Summers' exuberance.
What isn't so delirious is director Tomer Zvulun's pedestrian production, a tripartite offering from Atlanta Opera, Cincinnati Opera, and HGO. While it offers state-of-the-art video projections by S. Katy Tucker, it's all rather ordinary looking and holds no surprises.
We knew we were in for trouble during the famous overture, where all the opera's themes are introduced in a splendid rush of orchestral color: roiling seas, redemptive love, an eternal curse, lusty sailors, and ghostly apparitions. Instead of allowing us to listen to Wagner's tone painting, Tucker lays it out in a synced art installation piece. When the music says waves, we see waves, when it sounds romantic, we see shafts of heavenly light. Mostly these dissolving black and white images of clouds and water are murky and dull, like watching mud splatter in slow motion.
But these visual equivalences deny us the pleasure we get from great music – the chance to dream it ourselves. Wagner, a supreme orchestrator even in these early days, gives us all we need. Must we be prodded into seeing only what Tucker wants us to see? Yes, it's mesmerizing and at times most eerily beautiful, but it's still too concrete and obvious. We've seen this muddling with other modern stagings – HGO's horrid Ring cycle from La Fura dels Baus was a prime culprit – and I fear we're going to be stuck with all this arty tinkering until someone in the future decides it'll be fine to let us alone with the music. We can fill in our own blanks just fine.
The entire show takes place in Daland's factory with its gargantuan curved back wall. Not even the clever lighting by Amith Chandrashaker can make that wall disappear in the first act where we're supposed to be anchored near the rocky coast of Norway. Oh, a sail is raised, there's a blue ship's wheel, and ropes are clumsily hauled by the choristers, but we're still inside a factory. It's strangely disquieting and belies everything Wagner is telling us. There are times in opera where you must just close your eyes and listen.
In black leather drag, Polish baritone Andrzej Dobber makes a commanding, haunted Dutchman. He sports a spiffy red leather great coat to match his ship's blood-red sails, but he's menacing nonetheless.
With rueful but stirring voice, his first appearance is accompanied by his gigantic shadow that looms over the set. Unlike his signature role, lecherous Baron Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca, the Dutchman is inky and damaged, doomed to wander the seas except for a reprieve every seven years. If he can find a faithful lover who will be true to him until death, the curse will be lifted. Dobber brought out the darkness, the scarring on his heart. His opening aria, “Die Frist ist um” (“The time has come”) was a virtual poem of despair and resignation, wonderfully modulated by his craggy voice that cried with a ragged hopefulness.
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American soprano Melody Moore, a riveting Marta in HGO's The Passenger (2014), has a good turn with angelic Senta, one of Wagner's saintly women who throw themselves away on dissolute men. She must swoon over thoughts of the Dutchman she hasn't met (her famous “Ballad”), give up boyfriend Erik (Eric Cutler), and fall hard for this sexy mysterious stranger, all in one act. (HGO performs the 2 ½-hour Dutchman without intermission, as Wagner demanded.) While her top notes – and there are quite a few – weren't as securely hit as they could be, Moore has a radiantly dusty voice that's pure velvet. She's directed to be a bit manic, which makes her character slightly unstable, but Wagner loads the deck against her. She there to service the great composer, not the Dutchman. But she's a trooper in this production, clambering up an enclosed ladder so she can hurl herself out the factory window to save her dream lover. Since there is no pier in Jacob A. Climer's claustrophobic set design to throw herself off of, why not the window?
HGO Studio Artist tenor Richard Trey Smagur sings a plangant Steersman; and Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson, a malevolent Fasolt in HGO's Das Rheingold (2014), is gleeful sea captain Daland, who gladly pimps out his daughter when bribed by the Dutchman with unlimited chests of treasure.
The Flying Dutchman is a grand ghost story, suitable for a more formal Halloween celebration, already inundated by slasher films and haunted houses. Made sublime by Wagner's incomparable music that depicts salt spray and Davey Jones, it weaves its own uniquely special spell.
The Flying Dutchman continues at 2 p.m. Sunday October 21; 7:30 p.m. October 27, 30, November 2 at the Wortham Center, 501 Texas. For information