Met’s New Launch Of Wagner Classic Slow To Catch Sail

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Nordic vision: ‘The Flying Dutchman’ directed by François Girard at the Metropolitan Opera. (Photos: Ken Howard)

NEW YORK – The Metropolitan Opera may well have a fine, even classic new production of The Flying Dutchman with director François Girard’s dark, Nordic vision that could make this operatic ghost story truly haunting. Yet that’s not what emerged on the March 2 opening night, which felt like a rehearsal, and one that was bogged down by factors that should’ve pulled it together. At least the departed star Bryn Terfel (who cancelled due to a broken ankle) was not terribly missed; the replacement, Evgeny Nikitin, was one of the more nuanced Dutchman portrayals I’ve ever heard.

Evgeny Nikitin (with glowing rock) is a nuanced Dutchman.

But the Mercury-in-retrograde effect (an astrological phenomenon that’s said to disrupt communication) started with the overture when something sounding like an unoiled electric fan was heard from a member of the audience; it was a personal device that simply wouldn’t shut off and had to be removed from the auditorium. The show probably couldn’t be stopped with its gyrating, three-dimensional computerized animation that was impressively timed to the contours of the overture. Stars, sea, and waving ocean grass surrounded the red-gowned Senta, the woman who would save the cursed Dutchman from sailing the dark seas for eternity. With the overture and noisy device out of the way, the Norwegian ship of mortals headed by the character Daland made a grand-opera entrance under mostly cloudy, diagonally slanted Northern skies. In contrast, the ghostly Dutchman later appeared shipless, alone, tentative but seeking redemption holding what initially resembled a hand-held lamp but, on repeated inspection, was more like a glowing rock that was meant to be a symbol (so said Girard) of hard-won, world-weary wisdom.

Sergey Skorokhodov as Erik and Anja Kampe as Senta.

In many ways, the production was Senta’s story, though indirectly at times. When the opera is on dry land in the spinning mill where she is employed, Senta is mesmerized by a giant eye rather than the usual portrait of the legendary Dutchman. Always looking beyond the story’s literal aspects, the John Macfarlane set designs vanquished spinning wheels but had ropes hanging from the ceiling, becoming crossed and tangled in ways suggesting the world of the Three Norns in Götterdämmerung.

Along the way, the now-disturbing implications of the quick marriage arrangements – in which Daland seems all too eager to give away Senta for the Dutchman’s riches – were sidestepped. In the original libretto, Daland does assure the Dutchman he’s not just in it for the money. Also, marrying off the distracted, less-than-productive Senta may be seen as a graceful exit from the local workforce. Nonetheless, Girard’s glowing rock of wisdom came to the rescue: Promised to Daland, it became a factor in the rushed marriage. Whether any of these staging ideas seem viable on paper, the theatrical images had their own visceral power. You didn’t have to consciously know the meaning in order to feel the theatrical effect.

Despite backstage reports that the cast wasn’t happy with vocal-projection challenges created by the production, all the singers were unusually astute with coloring the language, starting with David Portillo (a wonderful lyric tenor) as the Steersman. Past encounters with Nikitin and Franz-Josef Selig (Daland) have always left an impression of solidity. They get the job done. But this time, Nikitin’s vocal charisma lept well beyond that. From the beginning of his opening monologue, he made deft coloristic choices and kept his voice scaled evenly, never crossing the line into stereotypical Russian bass-baritone wooliness. From the pit, conductor Valery Gergiev supported him with deliberate tempos underscoring the gravity of his vocal message.

As Daland, Franz-Josef Selig gives a solid, reliable performance.

In that spirit, Gergiev’s tempos stayed probing and deliberate – was he getting in touch with his inner Otto Klemperer? – no matter how bouncy and folksy the music is meant to be. Rhetorical pauses confoundingly outstayed their welcome. Senta’s visionary moments were contemplative bordering on catatonic. But in the spirit of this beyond-literal production, such tempos could barely be accommodated by this early Wagner score.

With pacing gone awry, the evening felt much longer than it was. That was also tough on the singers. Other than Nikitin and Portillo, none of them seemed at their best, such as Mihoko Fujimura as Mary and Sergey Skorokhodov as the huntsman Erik but especially Anja Kampe, who was making her Met debut. She is one of the few sopranos who can sing Senta with technique and authority, so much that her Act II ballad truly felt like a highly eventful journey into the depths of Wagner’s world of unseen forces and coincidences laden with forces of destiny. However, fatigue was obvious, at times woefully, by the end.

Gergiev must be credited with isolating the harmonic kernels that are specific to the Flying Dutchman in a score that represents numerous influences from mid-19th-century opera but also conveys the underlying pain and discontent of the title character. But never did one encounter the Gergiev of old, who was inclined to throw caution to the wind to create grand effects. Even Gergiev’s conducting technique was straightforward – little or no flickering fingers in the left hand that symphonic musicians sometimes find inspiring but could be ambiguous in the opera house. For long stretches, he seemed to relegate his status to that of an operatic traffic cop. When that changes – hopefully as the opera’s run continues through March 21 with Gergiev and then with Patrick Furrer March 24 and 27 (for tickets and information, go here) – this Dutchman could fuse into something great. With no cast changes for the run, the singers could well evolve into quite a satisfying ensemble.

[This production had its start in Quebec City, where it was reviewed by Arthur Kaptainis.]