By Roy C. Dicks
SARASOTA, Fla. – Florida’s plucky, adventurous Sarasota Opera, now in its 55th season, is staging Richard Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) for seven performances in March during its four-opera 2014 Winter Festival. Seen in its third performance March 6, the production proved to be a solid if not particularly memorable one, containing a number of gratifying moments counterbalanced by as many that missed the mark.
Some might say this is the norm for any company attempting Wagner’s works, the demands on cast, conductor, director, and designers making a complete success always frustratingly out of reach. In that regard, Sarasota Opera’s experienced performers and well-established creative team offered a respectable rendering of Dutchman. Still, it lacked some crucial fire and excitement that Wagner’s opera can deliver in the right hands.
There were many fine elements, not the least of which was the chorus. Under chorus master Roger L. Bingaman, the men had admirable precision and thrilling volume in the sailor’s choruses of Act I and the chilling double chorus of the Dutchman’s dead sailors and Captain Daland’s crew in Act III. The women’s chorus fared equally well, bright and crisp in the Act II spinning scene and blending beautifully with the men in Act III’s drinking song.
Two young singers in Sarasota Opera’s Studio Artists Program made good impressions. Jon Jurgens’ pleasing tenor gave the Steersman a youthful innocence, while Daryl Freedman’s clear, firm mezzo made Mary, Daland’s housekeeper, a likable, sympathetic character.
Harold Wilson’s Daland was completely satisfying. His baritone was full, rounded, and never forced. His characterization of a loving but practical father had great warmth and astutely judged humor.
Another positive element was David P. Gordon’s set designs. Act I’s shoreline of stone slabs and the stern portion of Daland’s ship served the action well. Gordon’s creative solution for the arrival of the Dutchman’s ship was the projection of a stage-filling bow, glowing red. The sailors pushing off at the end of Act I drew delighted applause. In Act III, the front half of Daland’s ship was docked in port. Gordon cleverly revealed the Dutchman’s dead sailors in shadow within the bow of the Dutchman’s ship, their menacing silhouettes frightening Daland’s crew. Gordon’s realistic designs made these outer acts rather cramped, but Act II’s setting for Daland’s house was simple and spare, allowing room for the women’s spinning wheels and for Senta’s various interactions with Daland, the Dutchman, and her would-be husband, Erik.
Ken Yunker’s lighting was effectively stormy and ominous for the outer acts and sunnily cheery for Act II.
The production’s chief liabilities lay in the major roles and the conducting. Dara Hobbs’ Senta was the most successful. She had power and control through most of her range, able to be heard over the orchestra when necessary but also capable of some intimate singing. Sometimes her phrasing was choppy and her voice did not always “speak” immediately, but the basic tone was beautiful. However, her highest-lying notes were mostly willed into being, often turning white, having been pushed to the edge of her limits. Hobbs expressed Senta’s obsession and willfulness well enough, her characterization believable if accomplished through conventional gestures and movements.
Michael Robert Hendrick’s Erik was confidently sung, exhibiting the technique and stamina to wrestle with this punishing role. The middle voice was full and clear, but the high notes and phrases mostly sounded pushed and constricted, although his Act III duet with Senta found him in better fettle. His make-up and costuming made him seem quite a bit older than Senta, and his stock gestures and stances added to the impression.
Kevin Short’s Dutchman was curious and troubling. The voice was generally strong, rich, and sonorous in the lower and middle range, but high notes were more passed through than fully held. He took most passages at a consistent mezzo forte, with little characterization or variation. His comportment was stiff and nearly immobile, his expression rarely changing.
Some of the problem must be attributed to conductor David Neely, who made all of the Dutchman’s music ponderous and heavy, draining away any thrust or energy. Neely started the performance with a soft-edged overture, and a general lethargy pervaded the first act, robbing many big moments of their intended impact, such as the climax of the Daland-Dutchman duet.
Thankfully, Act II was an entirely different experience, Neely leading a well-sprung, vibrant reading throughout – until the Senta-Dutchman duet that closes the act, where things again turned bland. Neely’s Act III was back on form and finished the opera with an exciting flourish. Throughout the evening, the orchestra played cohesively, the dramatic climaxes especially effective courtesy of the Sarasota Opera House’s vivid, clean acoustics.
Tom Diamond’s stage direction also contributed to the Dutchman dilemma. He asked Short to do nothing more than stand and sing, sometimes almost perversely so in sections where the Dutchman should be mysterious, threatening, and aggressive. Despite the Dutchman’s being a walking dead soul, the zombie approach was not the best option for holding the audience’s interest. For the other roles, Diamond’s direction ran to the traditional, with generalized blocking that moved characters around the stage without defining detail.
Overall, the performance was a valiant effort by an established regional company that did not reach the tantalizingly close percentage of success that some companies have achieved.
Roy C. Dicks has been performing arts writer for the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer since 1997.