In Search Of Dutch Cleanser

The voices were unbelievable, but I still want the head of the concept designer.

Mercifully, a lot of the Virginia Opera’s Flying Dutchman was done straight. No Sweeney-Todd-like ghostly maquillage on the entire cast (it’s been done). No weirdly industrial sets (popular everywhere). The chorus of the Dutchman’s crew was mercilessly cut, but the scarlet-saturated scrim views of his craft, leaving only tattered human silhouettes against the rigging to disquiet our imaginations, worked so well that you could forgive.

But the designer. Or the director. Or whose-ever idea it was to bring the cursed Dutchman — condemned for pride and stiff-neckery to sail the seas for eternity — on stage displaying a bare chest set off by period outerwear, and then eventually get nakeder from there. That person needs to walk the plank.

I have no problem with a bit of skin in the footlights, but if you are going to design and present an opera straight — in this case, dressing everyone as 19th century Norwegians plus one Dutchman of undetermined but presumably hoary vintage — I just do not want to see male nipples or, for that matter, a male navel heaving through the first two-thirds of the opera. When the soprano — who, true to tradition, boasted the girth and agility of one of those character suits worn at Disney World or for children’s street festivals — finally peeled his open surcoat off him for a clumsy scene of passion, the suspenders… well, just eye bleach. Eye bleach.

(The soprano’s costume too. Sorry. If she is huge, she is huge and that is how she has to be, her voice could have ransomed a kingdom, but the little peplum’ed jacket just set off a caboose that looked like a hundred and one buffets at Denny’s, which does not comport with a Gothically yearning ingenue being peddled by her father, a monument to cupidity if ever there was one, as a hot ticket in the marriage market. When she embraced her demon lover, it was desperately obvious from the angle of the peplum that she had to bend forward over her own abdomen and couldn’t quite reach around him, kind of like Domenico Scarlatti having to stop hand-crossing as he aged due to increasing portliness. I don’t know what to say about the red wig. Whenever a stage designer wants to convey that a female character is a loose cannon they give her a red wig. Ahem.)

But, oh, it was worth the evening even so — the lower notes of the basses full and resonant, the soprano’s top register liquid and unctuous and never strained or shrill. Dutchman is one of the handful of operas that Wagner composed in the grand aria-and-chorus format before he went all rambling and free-form, a quick crib to his later mania for having women die in some vague act of redemption. Dutchman is condemned to wander but will be released if a woman is true to him till death. So far they’ve all stepped out on him, been damned and left him to resume his journey. At the onset of his current seven year itch cycle he berths in stormy waters alongside Daland, a merchant who is impressed with the riches the Dutchman offers for a night’s lodging ashore, and says “Um, I have a beautiful virtuous daughter if you wanna, you know, marry someone.” Follows one of the most tremendous contrapuntal simultaneous monologues in opera — a tour de force of the bass voice:

(About 7:00. Dutchman: “I’m getting off this tub.” Daland: “I’m gonna be rich!” You can hear Wagner giving Verdi a run for his money in the organ-grinder style, just as he does later, when the ships have put in to port and the sailors and their girls enjoy some working-class merriment that can stand up to the Anvil Chorus — here, at 1:34:

Okay, the libretto beats its premise half to death. Daland meets the guy who just happens to be the cursed mariner whose sad tale his daughter is obsessed with, brings him home and says “wanna marry this rich guy?” while the rest of the town says “Dang, you know, that looks like the famous cursed Dutchman’s ship,” and then in the penultimate moments it’s supposed to be sort of surprising when the dark hero sings “Ich bin der Fliegende Hollander!!!!” and whistles up his ghoulish crew, determined not to wreck Senta’s life. (I think this, and not her sacrifice, is what actually releases him, but that’s just my theory.)

Which brings us to the other thing that has to go overboard. I could handle the unraveling of the situation in which Senta — now in a long bridal nighty-gown that suited her a deal better — seemed to be abed dreaming of her lover or getting a premarital visit (suspenders and all) or something, and then her former stalker suitor Erik, an open-carry advocate who barges in everywhere with his hunting rifle, shows up and creepily insists she is his forever because he picked her flowers once, and then the Dutchman catches them together and decides to spare her and face his damnation. She, of course, intends to be treu bis zum Tod and, in the original libretto, climbs to a promontory as the Dutchman puts out to sea, then leaps into the waves, making sure the death part kicks in. Here, she never got off the bed, instead reaching for one of the ropes that dangled distractingly from the flies throughout the production, and performed the physically impossible feat of strangling herself with it. Thud.

Erotic asphyxia? Just wondering.

Oh well, the music was incredible. Bleach is cheap.

3 thoughts on “In Search Of Dutch Cleanser

  1. Strange coincidence, I am seeing “Dutchman” on May 11th in Seattle, with Greer Grimsley in the title role. I don’t think it’s this production, though…at least, I hope not. The last time I saw it, it was sort of set in a concentration camp or something similar, which was a bit of a head-scratcher, but I’ve seen worse things.

    It’s on my top ten list of operas I would take to a desert island if I had to live with only ten for the rest of my life, so I’m looking forward to it…and I love the no-intermission thing, since the pitch just builds and builds, and there’s no good place to interrupt it. I also love the orchestral score, which is as much a character as the characters are. And: whenever I want to swoon over singing (which I do on a pretty regular basis)…Jose van Dam, “Die Frist Ist Um”–what he lacks in size of voice, he makes up for in tonal finesse and text interpretation. Particularly starting at 5:55, I almost can’t stand it, it’s so gorgeous. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ft8eObK-rC8

    • Wow.

      I don’t even think size of voice is lacking. Or rather he embodies what my old voice teacher used to put forth as a harangue — “every note must be as good as the best note.”

      • The voice was so focused when he was this age that it sounded larger that it really was. He recorded the role with Karajan later in his career—not as gorgeous as this, but still very good, and with Kurt Moll as Daland, so you can’t argue with that. Terrible Senta, though.

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