Ship Shape

SFO’s “The Flying Dutchman” marks year two for successful Wagner operas

Left to Right; Chad Shelton (Erik), Nicholas Brownlee (Dutchman) and Elza van den Heever (Senta) in the Santa Fe Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. (Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera)

His own unpleasant journey with wife and dog across the Baltic sea to London as they fled their creditors helped inspire Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman, which premiered in 1843 in Dresden.

“This voyage I never shall forget as long as I live,” he writes in his essay “Autobiographic Sketch.” He continues: “It lasted three and a half weeks, and was rich in mishaps. Thrice did we endure the most violent of storms, and once the captain found himself compelled to put into a Norwegian haven. The passage among the crags of Norway made a wonderful impression on my fancy; the legends of the Flying Dutchman, as I heard them from the seamen’s mouths, were clothed for me in a distinct and individual colour, borrowed from the adventures of the ocean through which I then was passing.”

In his prelude talk before the July 7 production, opera lecturer Oliver Prezant led attendees through some of the sounds Wagner infuses into the opera’s famous overture and throughout, which capture the rhythm of the ocean’s waves and the sailors calls and the like (as I did last year, I highly recommend catching Prezant’s 30-minute pre-show talks, which are informative and entertaining for both the opera-curious and aficionados).

But the opera grew out of more than Wagner’s personal experience and aural nautical enchantment. As James M. Keller points out in his Santa Fe Opera program essay (also another wonderful resource for the season), Wagner had fixated on and highly identified with the myth of the Flying Dutchman, particularly as depicted in Heinrich Heine’s 1833 novel The Memoirs of Mister von Schnabelewopski, in which it is described as “the story of an enchanted ship which can never arrive in port, and which since time immemorial has been sailing about at sea.” In Wagner’s opera, the Dutchman (bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee in the SFO production this summer) “is doomed to live forever” at sea but given the chance every seven years to redeem himself by finding a woman who will love him eternally. When Norwegian Captain Daland (bass Morris Robinson) encounters the Dutchman and his ship, the story of the former and the riches aboard the latter convince Daland to bring the Dutchman home to woo his daughter Senta (wonderful soprano Elza van den Heever). Senta, as it happens, is already enraptured with the Dutchman’s tale and determined to help him break the curse, her suitor Erik (tenor Chad Shelton) notwithstanding. Spoiler alert: She succeeds by sacrificing her life to prove her love.

The Santa Fe Opera has not mounted The Flying Dutchman since 1988 (with two prior productions in 1971 and 1973). The 1988 show, Prezant noted, began with an actual storm and the musicians “huddling under the lip of the pit playing away and saying, ‘We are playing chamber music with God.’”

No such luck last Friday but, even without the hand of God—or the start of the monsoon season—the overture under the direction of Conductor Thomas Guggeis, making his SFO debut (through Aug. 15; Alden Gatt will conduct the final performance on Aug. 25), required no help from nature.

In a pre-season interview with Brent Stevens on Classical Public Radio (95.5 FM), Guggeis—designated general music director of the Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra—talked about the challenges of conducting The Flying Dutchman, an early work of Wagner’s he says “marries” both Wagner’s “admiration for the great bel canto” writers from Italian and French opera tradition with “the depth and also the weight…of the German language.”

Some have referred to The Flying Dutchman, for these reasons and others, as Wagner’s “crossover” opera, and it’s widely seen as the opera in which, as Prezant says, Wagner becomes Wagner: He writes his own libretto and begins establishing the leitmotifs—musical formulas representing characters, themes and ideas—for which he would become known in works such as Tristan und Isolde and The Ring Cycle.

The melding of different approaches in The Flying Dutchman makes for “a huge task and a fun task,” Guggeis notes, for the orchestra “to find the right colors to make this piece speak to us.” And, of course, the singers face the same challenge. In this production, they rise to the occasion. Former SFO apprentice Brownlee returns for his second Wagner opera in two years—he played Kurwenal in last year’s Tristan und Isolde—and navigates as Dutchman what he describes in an interview as the significant “high and heavy” demands of the role as if they were as natural as breathing (at altitude, no less). His performance, along with van den Heever’s and Daland’s were the highlights of the show—along with the orchestra and chorus.

I was less taken with the visual elements of Director David Alden’s production. I had the benefit of reading about them in advance via Mark Tiarks’ Pasatiempo interview with Alden, who explained his contemporary vision of the opera as a critique of the ghost-ship industrial complex, so to speak. This was interesting to ponder but not that interesting to look at—I would have preferred an oceanic versus cargo-container aesthetic. Fortunately, the music carries the show and one can always close one’s eyes.

The Flying Dutchman by Richard Wagner

In German with English and Spanish subtitles

8:30 pm July 12

8 pm July 31, Aug. 5, Aug. 10, Aug. 15, Aug. 25


$45-$385; $15 standing room

First-time NM residents are eligible for a 40% discount; call the box office in advance: (505) 986-5900 or (800) 280-4654. Day-of discounts available for students, seniors and military via the box office by phone or in person.

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