Under Fresh Sail, ‘Flying Dutchman’ Displays A Heart

The Dutchman (Gregory Dahl ) arrives in the Festival d’opéra de Québec’s production of ‘The Flying Dutchman.”
(Photos by Louise Leblanc)

QUEBEC CITY – The Festival d’opéra de Québec – as the Opéra de Québec calls its summer extension – has developed an enviable reputation as a launch site for co-productions involving other companies of repute. This year, the major project in the Grand Théâtre de Québec was a shades-of-gray and symbol-laden version of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman that will reappear at the Metropolitan Opera in March before setting sail for the Dutch National Opera and the Abu Dhabi Festival in the United Arab Emirates. A few adjustments might be forthcoming, but this evocative and dramatically comprehensible staging by François Girard will probably be greeted with a “Hallojo” in all ports of call.

That the Canadian director is an exponent of the cinema (Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould; The Red Violin) as well as the opera stage (Siegfried for the Canadian Opera Company; Parsifal for the Met) was made apparent during the overture by a light show comprising swirling globular masses suggesting galaxies in formation and interlocking strands that could be interpreted as rigging or perhaps the material consequences of string theory. Senta, front and center, wraps herself with (and otherwise manipulates) a rope hanging from on high.

Senta (Johanni van Oostrum) swears to be true to the Dutchman (Gregory Dahl).

My preference – apparently shared by no stage directors with careers to speak of – is to hear an overture without visual accoutrement. Still, this was, in its way, a promising start, quickly fulfilled by the appearance, stage right, of the prow of Daland’s ship, hauled ashore by his men. It is a realistic and apparently ironclad vessel, the vivid detail of which (you can see the rivets) stands in satisfying contrast to the romantic abstraction of just about everything else. The treasure chest the Dutchman offers his covetous fellow captain is a glowing stone; the portrait with which Senta is obsessed is represented by a giant, surreal eye that forms the backdrop of most of Act 2.

As for the spinning girls, they stand in a row and make hanging ropes oscillate more or less in rhythm with the music. (Few contemporary directors of this opera would dream of permitting old-fashioned spinning wheels on stage.) Sailors have no goblets in Act 3 and seem not to dance so much as undulate. Like almost everyone, they are dressed in dark costumes. Of furniture there is no trace.

The Dutchman (Gregory Dahl) ponders his fate in ‘Die Frist ist um.’

The most noteworthy absence, however, is of the vessel of the title, with its vaunted blood-red sails. It is interesting to reflect on the contrasting approach of the new production in Leipzig by Michiel Dijkema, who makes the Act 3 appearance of the ship the central coup de théâtre of the show. Girard apparently views the Flying Dutchman and even its crew (prerecorded in parts) as essentially imaginary appendages of its troubled skipper.

If this strategy transfers much of the narrative weight of the story to the imagination of the spectator, it can at least be reported that the stormy skies summoned by Girard and his team (John Macfarlane, sets; Moritz Junge, costumes; David Finn, lighting; and Peter Flaherty, projections) are genuinely impressive. German Romanticism is distinctly the point of departure. Even stage movement, not normally a major matter in this opera, is executed at a high level, as choreographer Carolyn Choa manages Senta’s concluding suicide and apotheosis as an exercise in body-sculpture ballet.

A possible downside of a subdued palette is the implicit demand it makes on singers to compensate with vocal color. A rugged rather than plummy baritone, Gregory Dahl as the Dutchman had further obstacles in the form of costuming, coiffure, and makeup that made this Canadian seem much the oldest and feeblest character on stage. (Bryn Terfel, at the Met, will presumably have similar difficulties to deal with.) German bass Andreas Bauer Kanabas filled the role of Daland both vocally and as an actor, while the South African soprano Johanni van Oostrum (wearing red) displayed just enough vocal weight to sustain a slow tempo in Senta’s ballad.

Senta (Johanni van Oostrum) and the spinning girls in the Québec production of ‘The Flying Dutchman.’

Tenor Éric Laporte, a native of Quebec City who works mainly in Europe, was earnest-looking and handsome-sounding as Erik (one serious slip notwithstanding). Éric Thériault, a young Acadian tenor, made a sweet-voiced Steuermann, while the Canadian mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy was a suitably stern Mary. Girard showed a knack for positioning the major characters – including the Dutchman and Senta in their glacial duet – in a way that sustained rather than dissipated suspense. His view of the drama is certainly psychological. In this case, the descriptor is not a synonym for boring.

While I have been making references to acts, it must be stressed that this Dutchman production is of the original continuous version with no intermission. Jacques Lacombe, a conductor who combines meticulous attention to detail with a sure sense of line, brought the score to a satisfying finish on Aug. 1 in two hours and 12 minutes. One wonders what the stopwatch will show in New York when Valery Gergiev takes charge. The Orchestre symphonique de Québec (the oldest operating orchestra in Canada, as we tend to forget) played solidly. Horns were strong and the English horn plaintive. The Opéra de Québec chorus, a sizable squad of 66 according to the program, gave it their all. If minimal in the modern manner, this Dutchman has a romantic heart. It should travel well.

Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette, Ludwig van Toronto, and La Scena Musicale.