At Chicago’s Lyric Opera season tickets come in series. The various series differ somewhat in the operas included and the day of the week on which they are performed. Since I began subscribing to season tickets to Lyric Opera, now more than 40 years ago, I have subscribed to the same series. As it works out the series to which I’ve subscribed typically includes the opening night of the season.
Forty years ago the season opening of Lyric Opera was much different than it is now. Men wore suits or tuxedos. Women wore formal gowns, frequently having their hair and even makeup done for the occasion. Some wore full length furs. Last night I saw one man wearing a tuxedo (other than those playing in the orchestra) and perhaps half a dozen women wearing formal gowns, a few others wearing eveningwear. Last night garb ranged from the formal to completely informal—jeans and T-shirts. Fortunately, I saw no gym shorts and hoodies.
I won’t attribute any explanations to the change. It does seem less important and even less festive now.
The opera starting the Lyric season this year was Richard Wagner’s Der Fliegende Höllander, The Flying Dutchman. The title role was sung by Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny, Senta was sung by Tamara Wilson. The libretto is based on a superstition dating from the 18th or, possibly, the 17th century of a phantom ship sighted by sailors from the North Atlantic all the way to Borneo. The last sighting of the Dutchman was during World War II. It is viewed as an omen of impending doom.
Although I was not initially impressed by either principal’s voice, they did grow on me as the opera went on. BTW Dutchman is, mercifully, one of Wagner’s shorter operas, a mere two hours and twenty minutes, frequently performed as last night without intermission. I was less impressed by the supporting singers but the chorus was fantastic.
Wagner’s music is, of course, stupendous.
I detested the physical production. It consists of a single very drab set which, according to the director’s notes, is intended to remind us of a German prison camp. The same was true of the costumes. They were apparently projecting Naziism on Wagner which seems like a reach for me. I can only attribute the production as an ultimately vain attempt to appeal to modern audiences if such things exist. Remember that the opera dates from 1843. Tragic, romantic heroes had dominated literature, basically, in living memory then and the notion of such a hero who could only be saved from damnation in the form of being forced to sail the world’s oceans endlessly by the faithful love of a woman had considerable appeal for audiences 180 years ago but, apparently not now. Although she’s not saved by the hero (it’s the other way around—she saves him), representing Senta as a girl-boss is impossible. Therefore, she’s represented as a prisoner of the society and conventions of her time. Or something.
I will add reviews of the production and performances as they become available.
This is the first opera I have attended since early 2020.
At the Sun-Times Nancy Malitz was more favorably impressed by the production than I was:
Lyric Opera has assembled one of the finest casts in recent history to perform this saga of a doomed sea captain, known only as the mysterious â€œDutchman,â€ who must sail the seas for seven years until he is given just 24 hours to land and win a womanâ€™s love, or be tempest-tossed for another seven years (until he can try again).
But itâ€™s director Christopher Aldenâ€™s production design that makes the first impression. Its vertigo-inspiring sets and creepy costumes by Allen Moyer, coupled with lighting by Anne Militello, literally rock the senses as if in a haunting dream. I sympathized with the audience member who grabbed the armrest near me as the show began.
The playing area is off-axis, a narrow shoebox shape that seems to float above the stage, tilted top left to lower right, like a bottle in a bad sea. It gives the alarming sense of the ship itself, the Flying Dutchman, being buffeted by a storm as the story begins. Although the floor doesnâ€™t really rock, it certainly seems to, as the remarkable cast of sailors and citizens mimics the action of being rocked back and forth, up and down, by traumatic events of meteorological, and increasingly hallucinogenic, nature.
The role of the Dutchman seems custom-made for Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny, a brilliant veteran with a dark voice and gleaming, almost trumpet-like top, renowned for such complex characters as Wagnerâ€™s Wotan, Verdiâ€™s Scarpia, and Bergâ€™s Wozzeck. (He is well-remembered for his Wozzeck at the Lyric a few years back.)
Konieczny is joined by the thrilling American dramatic soprano Tamara Wilson as Senta, the woman on whom the hurried and desperate Dutchman sets his sights this time ashore. Wilson grew up in Chicago and has sung at the Lyric twice before; she is in her prime, with a huge voice capable of profound intensity and torment.
Chicago Classical Review
Lawrence A. Johnson pretty clearly saw the same opera I did:
One entered the Civic Opera House Saturday night hoping that, similar to the haunted captain of the Flying Dutchman, the curse of the companyâ€™s past 13 years may have finally been lifted.
That didnâ€™t happen. The companyâ€™s season-opening performance of Wagnerâ€™s The Flying Dutchman was yet another shining exemplar of the leitmotif of the Anthony Freud eraâ€”first-class singing thoroughly undermined by a revisionist and execrable production.
The malefactor in this case is director Christopher Alden. In his last Lyric outing in 2000, Alden staged a Rigoletto that put the title jester in a large chair center stage where he sat and glowered at the audience throughout the opera with little interaction with Gilda or the other characters. That production was so widely reviled that Alden was effectively banned from the company roster for 23 years. Naturally it took Freud to bring back this spectacularly giftless hack.
Saturday nightâ€™s performance began well with superb singing and a striking unit set that evocatively depicted the deck of Dalandâ€™s vessel. Things begin to go seriously awry in Act 2. Instead of happy young girls working at their spinning wheels, the womenâ€™s chorus are unsmiling, proletarians in peasant scarves who move their arms in automaton-like, chopping motions (and not very well coordinated). Senta spends most of her time with her back to the audience staring at a Munch-like portrait of the Dutchman. All the male principals wear dark eye makeup like silent-film villains.
Aldenâ€™s artistic arrogance is on pretentious display in his â€œDirectorâ€™s noteâ€ (always an ominous sign) where he has the audacity to wrap himself in the flag of a crusader against anti-Semitism. Alden says his misbegotten staging reflects â€œmy desire to confront head-on the unholy connection between Wagnerâ€™s art and the spectres of Fascism and Antisemitism.â€ Right. That few audience members would get that without reading the note tells you how successful is this inspiration. If you prefer Wagnerâ€™s version of The Flying Dutchman youâ€™re probably on the side of the forces of darkness and maybe even a Republican.
Aldenâ€™s patented shtick is to take all the humanity and naturalness out of every opera he touches. So characters constantly face walls or away from the audience, emotions are either absent or exaggerated and parodied. Characters become quasi-zombies (like Senta) or caricatures like Erik, her suitor, who is depicted here as a cringing neurotic, menacing himself and others with a long hunting rifle.
The directorâ€™s other brainstorm is to elevate minor roles into annoying omnipresent figures silently doing ridiculous things that detract from the principals. So the Steersman instead of disappearing after his opening aria, remains onstage as Dalandâ€™s confidante throughout the first act. The tiny role of Mary, who has told Senta of the Dutchman tale, is elevated into a constant irritating and unhinged presenceâ€”either hugging or brandishing the Dutchmanâ€™s portrait, or taking it off the wall and putting it back on a different wall over and over again. Will you please just get off the stage and go get a job at The Great Frame Up?
Alden saves his worst conceits for the final act. Unlike Wagnerâ€™s opera, as Aldenâ€™s says of his redo, â€œOur Senta is a rebel against her closed community identifying with the plight of the outcast.â€ Of course this is manufactured rubbish and has nothing to do with the actual opera or Sentaâ€™s character motivation as envisioned by the composer. So instead of Sentaâ€™s sacrificial suicide and a concluding vision of her and the Dutchman transfigured in death, Psycho Erik merely shoots her with his long gun. What an inspiring coda. Too bad tenor Robert Watson didnâ€™t pull an Alec Baldwin and shoot the director in rehearsal instead.
What a waste of a first-class cast.
Dennis Polkow’s review, too, was consistent with my experience:
On opening night right from the familiar overture, there were issues of balance, an early entrance of the strings and a tentative â€œDutchmanâ€ horn leitmotiv. When the curtain opened, the sailors were shouting so loudly that it was actually hard to hear the orchestra underneath them. Tempos were plodding all evening, an effect exaggerated by the decision to present the original one-act version, running nearly two-and-a-half hours without intermission.
Vocally, it was a rarity and a pleasure to hear a Daland (Finnish bass Mika Kares) and a Dutchman (Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny) that are vocally distinct in terms of color.
Chicago soprano Tamara Wilson certainly has the volume and the range for Senta; what was missing was the tenderness. Tenor Robert Watson was straining as Erik early on but grew more comfortable as the evening went on.
The decision to bring back controversial director Christopher Alden after a twenty-three year company absence is puzzling. With Alden, there is the tendency to superimpose ideas that work against the librettoâ€™s intentions and distract from what the music itself sonically directs. To make the Dutchman a Holocaust survivor forgets or ignores the fact that he is doomed to the seas because of his own actions. For Senta not to jump into the sea to redeem the Dutchman obliterates the workâ€™s message of love unto death and self sacrifice.