Michigan Opera Reprises ‘Holländer’ As Wagner Tribute

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Dutchman Detroit 595 (John Grigaitis)
Like many mid-size opera companies, Michigan Opera Theatre honored Wagner’s bicentennial with ‘Der fliegende Holländer.’
(MOT production photos by John Grigaitis)
By George Loomis

DETROIT – The city of Detroit may have filed for bankruptcy, but Michigan Opera Theatre sailed merrily along with its opening production of the season. Like many opera companies of modest means, MOT chose to observe the Wagner bicentennial with Der fliegende Holländer, which was seen for five performances (October 19-27) in a staging by Bernard Uzan with sets and costumes from Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

Detroit Opera House, home of Michigan Opera Theatre.
MOT’s Detroit Opera House is a restored ’20s movie palace.

Holländer is the only Wagner opera to be given by MOT to date, although the company’s general director, David DiChiera, said he hopes to do Lohengrin before too long. Holländer was performed in 1997 as part of MOT’s first complete season in the Detroit Opera House, the splendidly restored, 2,700-seat theater that began life in the early 1920s as the Capitol Theatre, a movie palace. For the legally curious, the Opera House, despite its name, is owned by MOT rather than by the city and is thus beyond the reach of the bankruptcy proceedings.

Holländer may be among the more manageable Wagner operas to put on, but it still requires four singers of strong Wagnerian credentials, and MOT succeeded in fielding a creditable cast. American bass-baritone Kristopher Irmiter had several moments when his voice resounded powerfully in the Dutchman’s music. Yet there were also moments when his singing sounded constricted, which made for an uneven impression. His portrayal was also tilted a bit too much toward expressing the Dutchman’s inner turmoil and self-pity.

Kristopher Irmiter and Elisabet Strid in The Flying Dutchman. (John Grigaitis)
Senta (Strid, in U.S. debut) swears fidelity to the Holländer (Irmiter).

Much better was Swedish soprano Elisabet Strid as Senta, in her U.S. debut. Her bright, firm, cleanly produced soprano is ideally suited to the so-called Jugendlich-dramatischer Sopran roles, so it is not a surprise that she will make her Bayreuth debut next summer as Freia. Her singing as Senta was consistently arresting and vibrant. There wasn’t much character development in her portrayal, although Senta doesn’t change much: She starts out obsessed by the Dutchman and remains that way. (Both the Dutchman and Senta were double cast, with Thomas Gazheli and Lori Phillips having been heard in previous performances.)

Also impressive was the excellent bass Burak Bilgili, a singer not especially associated with the German repertoire, who sang Daland with a splendidly rich, well-rounded sound and a solid idiomatic footing.  The tenor John Pickle brought a handsome lyrical voice to Erik, though it was sometimes a bit on the light side and needed more intensity at key dramatic moments. Daniel Shirley and Danielle Wright sang well as the Steersman and Mary, respectively.

Elisabet Strid, Danielle Wright and Women’s Chorus. (Grigaitis)
Senta (Strid, at left) muses on the Holländer as the women spin.

The production alerted us during the overture to Senta’s longstanding preoccupation with the Dutchman. She was seen at different stages of childhood, always playing with a sailboat with “blood-red” sails. We saw quite a bit of the ship via projections of it being tossed on a stormy sea. R. Keith Brumley’s realistic sets were functional but looked rather dowdy. The projections of the sea returned for the transformational ending in which the two younger Sentas appeared with the grown-up Senta, who joined the Dutchman within the border of a gold picture frame for a rather prosaic close.

Steven Mercurio led a vigorous, surely paced performance, and the orchestra sounded good, although, from my seat in the orchestra, not terribly robust. Presumably that was a function of the acoustics of the Opera House rather than the orchestra itself.

MOT continues its well-balanced, four-opera season with Verdi’s La traviata in November with the acclaimed soprano Nicole Cabell singing her first Violetta. A new production of William Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge follows, with Puccini’s Turandot concluding the season.

MOT’s efforts to rebound after the economic downtown have been given a boost by the upturn in fortunes of the automobile companies. A banner over the stage proclaimed that the fall season was presented by the Ford Motor Company.

George Loomis writes regularly for the International New York Times and is a New York correspondent for Opera magazine.