Shower Of Roses For Nézet-Séguin’s ‘Dutchman’ At Met

Baritone Michael Volle, who made his Met debut in ‘Arabella’ in 2014, returned in the title role of Wagner’s ‘Der
fliegende Holländer,’ a revival of August Everding’s 1989 production. (Photos: Richard Termine/Metropolitan Opera.)
By Susan Brodie

NEW YORK – When Metropolitan Opera Music Director Designate Yannick Nézet-Séguin took his curtain call on opening night of Der fliegende Holländer, the orchestra showered him with roses. From the evidence of his first Met engagement since his appointment as James Levine’s successor – he formally assumes the position in 2020 – the company has good reason to be eager for him to settle in. This Flying Dutchman, with its excellent cast, unfussy staging, and superb ensemble singing and playing, was one of the most thrilling evenings of the season.  

Amber Wagner’s Senta was a revelation.

August Everding’s 1989 production of Wagner’s early opera, re-staged by Stephen Pickover for a third time since the director’s death in 1999, has held up well. Lore Haas’ sober, vaguely 19th-century costumes and Hans Schavernoch’s  dark, abstracted but recognizably traditional sets use the stage’s volume effectively to suggest the immensity of the sea and the harshness of nature on the Norwegian coast. A massive cliff looming behind the merchant ship in the first act is the backdrop to the sudden appearance of the haunted ship gliding into view while the Steersman dozes. A gangway swings halfway down to the deck, and the Dutchman delivers his chilling monologue, “Die Frist ist um,” suspended mid-air. The second act’s sail maker’s loft, more warmly lit, seems almost cozy in comparison, but the phantom vessel seen through the rear windows is a reminder of the inchoate dangers outside. If the third act apparition of the ghostly sailors, badly amplified, momentarily invoked a low-budget zombie movie, the driving score swept away such distracting thoughts with its power.

Revivals rarely receive the kind of luxury casting lavished on this production, beginning with Amber Wagner’s Senta, a revelation. This 2007 Met Council winner has already sung Verdi at the Met, but Wagner’s music better suits her warm, full voice, with its gleaming focus surrounded by a plush cushion of sound. She negotiated this highly taxing soprano role with plenty of stamina, holding her own in the second act duet with the Dutchman but reserving plenty of juice for the last act confrontation with Erik, as well as a gleaming final high B. Ms. Wagner isn’t the most vivid actress, but her Senta, the dutiful daughter who fantasizes about the portrait of a phantom lover to escape the dull confinement of her life, grew in awareness and determination to her final fateful act.

AJ Glueckert, in his Met debut as Erik, pleads with Amber Wagner’s Senta.

After his much praised 2014 Met debut in Arabella (plus two jump-in performances as Hans Sachs), Met audiences had to wait three years for Michael Volle’s return to New York. His Dutchman did not disappoint. The baritone’s natural charisma enhanced the character’s dangerous volatility, which he expressed with a range of vocal colors, unafraid to give a snarling edge to his smooth sound. It was easy to understand why Senta would reject the petulant Erik for this larger-than life, red-blooded stranger.

Making his Met debut was AJ Glueckert, who replaced Jay Hunter Morris as Erik the week before opening night. The young Oregonian, a former Adler fellow in San Francisco, has already performed heroic roles like Don José, Bacchus, and the Prince (Rusalka) in theaters from San Francisco to Glyndebourne to Frankfurt, where he is a first-year ensemble member. As Erik, Senta’s spurned suitor, his smooth clarion tenor heralds a promising candidate in the Heldentenor pipeline. Only a few moments revealed his inexperience at negotiating the vast Met space.

Rising young tenor Ben Bliss was the Steersman.

Franz-Josef Selig was a sturdy-sounding Daland, the sea captain willing to marry off his only daughter to the wealthy stranger. His eager greed at the sight of the jewels offered by the Dutchman was perhaps the only comic note of the evening. In smaller roles, rising young tenor Ben Bliss was a sweet-sounding and persuasively boyish Steersman, and Dolora Zajick’s Mary was firm of voice and temperament.

But the real star was Nézet-Séguin, who led a blazingly vibrant performance. From the orchestra’s urgent opening tremolos, the energy never flagged, even in quieter moments. Brass and timpani were deployed with appropriate delicacy or ferocious power, and he bought out scoring details, like hollow horn timbres evoking the uncanny. At times his phrasing had bel canto flexibility, and he pulled back to allow moments of stillness, also making sure that singers were never covered. His athletic approach, very different from that of his predecessor, kept musicians energized and the audience on the edge of their seats.

The superb Met chorus was very much on form, displaying enthusiasm and crispness beyond their usual excellence. Adding to a listener’s pleasure was the sense that the ensemble was enjoying this musical experience more than usual. Met audiences can hope that this foreshadows a great tenure for the music director designate. Only three more years to wait.

The Flying Dutchman will have four more performances through May 12. For tickets go here.

The April 29 matinee performance will be broadcast over radio (1 p.m. EDT). To find a radio station in the US and Canada, go here (includes internet streaming).

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts, and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!

Amber Wagner as Senta with members of the Met chorus.