Let’s talk drama. On opening night, approximately 15 minutes after the performance was scheduled to begin, LA Opera president and CEO Christopher Koelsch took to the stage to announce that soprano Elisabete Matos had “become indisposed” and that Julie Makerov would be playing the role of Senta in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. Though Ms. Makerov has played the role before, it did have a whiff of “the understudy gets the big break.”
In this opera Senta, though already pursued by Erik (Corey Bix), agrees to her father Daland’s (James Creswell) request to marry the mysterious and wealthy Dutchman (Tomas Tomasson). The ghostly Dutchman has been condemned with his crew to sail for eternity – never to land ashore. Once every seven years he is given the opportunity to find a woman whose love will end the curse. Will Senta finally be the woman who ends his misery?
Ms. Makerov sang beautifully for someone who, according to an e-mail sent out by LA Opera after the performance, stepped into the production around 7:18 PM on opening night. Given her history with the role, her success in it is not a surprise. What surprises is that she knew the blocking as well as she did and appeared to sing effortlessly with the rest of the company.
Mr. Tomasson is stunning as the Dutchman. Baritone roles don’t usually get the attention afforded high-flying tenors, but every moment he was on stage was mesmerizing. Mr. Bix, a tenor, got easily lost among the cast and the orchestra. In the quieter moments he was quite good, but his is not a voice that cuts through and makes its presence felt. This was particularly true late in the opera during the trio when Erik is making his last plea for Senta to stay with him. Mr. Creswell sang nicely as Daland, but his Cirque du Soleil hairstyle was distracting.
Which leads me to the look and direction of this production. This Nikolaus Lehnhoff production, directed here by Daniel Dooner, uses a single set. It is a post-modern ship that also serves as Daland’s house and later as the coast near his house. The ship set is most versatile when a giant propeller appears and rotates, allowing The Dutchman to make his entrance. It stops and takes on the appearance of a nuclear trefoil sign. Is the Dutchman radioactive? The only attempt at giving the set depth comes from the near constant use of scrims. This was best served in the third act when the scrim of the ocean downstage was mirrored by the backdrop of the sea upstage. I’m not quite sure what to make of Andrea Schmidt-Futterer’s monochromatic costumes. In the third act the men wear balloon pants that make them look like bald, hipster munchkins. Denni Sayers’ choreography is also rather dull.
Most opera aficionados will tell you that it is the music and singing that matters. I like but don’t love The Flying Dutchman. The drama doesn’t get going until the second act. The overture is gorgeous, but I think even Wagner wasn’t fully invested until act two. From the opening notes of that overture, James Conlon once again conducted with incredible passion. If the drama onstage wasn’t always involving, the drama that occurred backstage made for a very unique opening night.