New Season, New Blog

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(c) Susan Brodie

Le Vaisseau Fântome

 

I walk into a musical event filled with hope and anticipation: for a performance that catches fire, the discovery of a wonderful new artist, a veteran's finest hour, a peak experience. Reality rarely lives up to that exalted fantasy, but my assumption is that the artists will make their best effort to honor the music and share it with the audience. So, toi toi toi: I want them to have a good night, for the listener's sake and for their own. Thus I am not a "gotcha" critic, and I can forgive many faults in a performance if spirit is present. Cynicism, indifference, wayward directorial arrogance (as I see it) raise my ire.

 

I usually write about concert music, but opera has seized my imagination in the years since I stopped singing and I now attend performances as often as I can. I'm based in New York City, but personal obligations take me frequently to Paris. The opportunity to sample productions in la Ville Lumière and beyond–including a gratifying number of broadcasts on French television and in movie theaters–has allowed me to experience not only a range of theaters and directorial approaches, but also of different audiences, the consumers and unsung participants in this art form.

 

Opera was invented as a potent amalgam of music and speech, more powerful together than either mode of expression. To this add other multi-dimensional elements: the visual impact of scenery, projections, choreography. It's fascinating to track Opera World's developing response to new technology and the breaking down of taboos, though the results are not always happy. La Traviata scandalized the 19th century public and censors; today depictions of sin in all its guises are de rigueur, while directorial excesses and amplification of singers' voices raise a greater hue and cry than gratuitous nudity. Changing audiences–especially in less-subsidized U.S. houses–also have their role in what makes it to the stage. What makes us care about a performance today? What compromises can be made without threatening the art form?

 

There are many enticing things coming up this season including plenty of Wagner: individual Ring operas in New YorkParis, and Frankfurt as those companies construct new Cycles, and San Francisco's new Ring next June. After years of avoiding Wagner (O misspent youth!), I have developed an addiction to this hypnotic music and look forward especially to writing about these productions. I'll also be writing about individual singers, especially up-and-coming talent.

 

Bah! Another opera blog? We'll see.

 

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The Opéra de Paris opened its 2010-11 season on Thursday with a revival of Willy Decker's 2000 production of Der Fliegende Hollander. Dutchman was my first Wagner opera; I approached this titan reluctantly after substantial experience with Baroque opera. It was the perfect entry-level Wagner, not overly long, with catchy tunes leavening the power of the composer's voice. Now, with a number of Ring Cycles behind me I hear in this early work the last gasp of Romanticism; the tuneful four-square set pieces remain appealing but lack the hypnotic flow that pulls me back to the later operas.

 

Wolfman Gussman's spare but handsome unit set–a room with a large door and a painting of an ocean storm–created a sense of claustrophobia and focused the drama on the young girl's obsession with saving, through the purity of her love, the sea captain condemned to sail for eternity. Decker portrays Senta as a fantasy-filled dreamer with a weakness for losers, like her suitor, the "lonely marginal" (Decker's description) Erik, and the Dutchman, eternally damned, whom she's never even seen. Funny, I thought the opera was about the Dutchman, who already embodies themes that haunt Wagner's work through Parsifal: women's purity (or lack thereof) the inescapable curse. And the omnipresent ocean reduced to a flat image on the wall conflicts with the sweeping power of the music. For me the shift in focus didn't make much sense, but the production looked attractive enough and benefitted from tight direction. Hans Toelstede's lighting was both atmospheric and detailed.

 

One strange moment: about halfway through the second scene, as the newly acquainted and betrothed Dutchman and Senta sang passionately of their future life together, I suddenly had the impression of watching a Truffaut film: a man and a woman, all talk and no action. Is it coincidence that Dutchman was written in Paris?

 

Performances: Paris debutant Adrienne Pieczonka sang Senta with a lustrous timbre that recalled the younger Deborah Voigt in the role. Matti Salminen's sonorous Daland was luxury casting. James Morris as the Dutchman sounded fresher than his recent final Met Wotans (thought the poor man had to wear a distractingly ugly wig). Paris newcomer Klaus Florian Vogt, who surprised Met audiences with his 2006 Lohengrins, has a fascinating voice, evoking a really loud Tamino–apparently he's known as a "heldencrooner". He sounded bright and powerful as Erik, as did Bernard Richter, the Steersman, despite a weak lower register. The chorus sounded magnificent, and the ensemble was ably led by Peter Schneider. His approach is a bit more deconstructionist than I like, but the detailed approach wasn't problematic in this piece. There was a certain tentativeness to the performances which should disappear after a couple more evenings. (opening nights are rarely peak performances)