18 April 2016

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Richard Wagner — DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER (W. Tigges, C. Pier, P. Volpe, C. Bix, R. Pike, D. Blalock; Virginia Opera, 17 April 2016)

IN PERFORMANCE: Bass-baritone WAYNE TIGGES as Der Holländer (left) and soprano CHRISTINA PIER as Senta (right) in Virginia Opera's production of Richard Wagner's DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER, April 2016 [Photo by Lucid Frame Productions, © by Virginia Opera]RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Der fliegende Holländer, WWV 63Wayne Tigges (Der Holländer), Christina Pier (Senta), Peter Volpe (Daland), Corey Bix (Erik), Rachelle Pike (Mary), David Blalock (Der Steuermann Dalands); Virginia Opera Chorus; Richmond Symphony Orchestra; Adam Turner, conductor and Chorus Master [Sara Widzer, Director; James Noone, Set Designer; Erik Teague, Costume Designer; Mark McCullough, Lighting Designer; James McGough, Wig and Makeup Designer; Felicity Stiverson, Choreographer; Virginia Opera, Richmond CenterStage, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Arts Center, Richmond, Virginia; Sunday, 17 April 2016]

When Der fliegende Holländer premièred at Dresden’s Semperoper on 2 January 1843, Richard Wagner’s thirtieth birthday was slightly less than six months in future. Though already long in the musical tooth by the standards of Mozart and Mendelssohn, Wagner was hardly a novice, his career as a composer for the stage already encompassing several aborted operas and the completed scores Die Feen, never performed during the composer’s lifetime; Das Liebesverbot, suppressed after its first performance in 1836; and Rienzi, the sprawling tale of a Fourteenth-Century Roman tribune. Likely the opera composer about whom the most scholarly tomes and less-learned chronicles have been written, Wagner did much to cultivate his own mythology, lore that has expanded exponentially in the 133 years since the composer’s death in 1883. Whether by the composer’s or others’ designs, a tenet of the Wagner Legend is the notion that the composer of Tristan und Isolde, Der Ring des Nibelungen and Parsifal emerged like Athena from the head of Zeus, fully in command of his genre-changing genius. Said by the composer to have been inspired, at least in part, by a tempestuous sea voyage from Latvia to England, the culmination of a perilous flight from creditors during which his first wife Minna suffered a miscarriage, Der fliegende Holländer was adapted primarily from an episode in Heinrich Heine’s satirical novel Aus den Memoiren des Herrn von Schnabelewopski. Sketched by Wagner as early as Spring 1840, the opera was pitched to Léon Pillet, Director of the Opéra de Paris, to whom it is alleged that the nearly-destitute composer sold the scenario for 500 francs in order to raise much-needed funds. Even with nothing so convenient as a bill of sale surviving to substantiate the Opéra’s transaction with Wagner, who hoped that Paris might witness the première of a Fliegende Holländer en français, it can hardly be coincidence that Pierre-Louis Dietsch’s Le vaisseau fantôme, a setting of a libretto by Paul Foucher and Bénédict-Henri Révoil that closely followed Wagner’s proposed drama, was premièred at the Opéra in 1842. What needs no proof beyond what the ears can perceive is that Wagner’s style evolved momentously between the completion of Rienzi in November 1840 and his composition of the bulk of Der fliegende Holländer in Summer 1841. For Wagner and for German opera in general, Der fliegende Holländer was a point of no return. Anchored in Richmond’s historic Carpenter Theatre at Dominion Arts Center, Virginia Opera’s production of Der fliegende Holländer was a point of departure for a spellbinding journey through the score in which, in the sense of his development of the history-altering Gesamtkunstwerk, Wagner became Wagner.

Whether presented using Wagner’s intended through-composed structure or the more familiar three-act form and set in Scotland, Norway, or a real or imagined alternate locale, Der fliegende Holländer poses difficult questions that production teams must endeavor to answer. Offering the company’s second interpretation of the opera, Virginia Opera’s Fliegende Holländer revived a production by acclaimed director and designer Francesca Zambello that was created for The Glimmerglass Festival and later mounted by Hawaii Opera Theatre. Directed for Virginia Opera by Sara Widzer, the insights of Zambello’s concept were sharpened to razor’s-edge intensity, giving the relationships among characters—and the characters themselves—specificity that enhanced their inherent symbolism despite an over-reliance on imagery involving ropes, also a component of Zambello’s Metropolitan Opera production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, and blocking that often seemed tentative and uncomfortable for the singers. Nevertheless, Senta thus became a determined, even humorous woman experiencing a sexual catharsis, as well as a manifestation of the archetypical ‘Eternal Feminine,’ the literal and spiritual vessel of the Holländer’s redemption. What Senta emphatically is not is a Brünnhilde without battle armor, and Widzer’s direction facilitated the development of a youthful, idealistic Senta with her own unique identities within the contexts of the performance and the Wagner canon. Erik Teague’s costume designs served the drama well but were less kind to the bodies that wore them. Jim McGough’s wigs and makeup were more successful at flattering both composer and cast, and Felicity Stiverson’s choreography infused the production with an organic range of motions to which the dancers—Dominique Buffington, Marcia Burns, Katie Henly, Maurio Hines, Kevin Jones, Nicole Lorah, Elliot Peterson, and Stiverson herself—mostly responded with unaffected movement. Though Richmond is a two-hour drive inland from the Atlantic, the achievements of set designer James Noone and lighting designer and implementer Mark McCullough and Serena Wong convincingly brought the sea to the stage, the relentless churning of the surf that resounds in Wagner’s music depicted in the production with an immediacy that heightened the drama’s emotional impact.

The musical challenges of Der fliegende Holländer are at least as terrifying as the opera’s scenic elements, and Virginia Opera’s production scaled the dangerous precipices of Wagner’s score on the sure footing of conductor and chorus master Adam Turner. At the helm of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra for the Richmond performances, Turner paced a traversal of the score in which gravitas occasionally outweighed momentum. Senta’s Ballade was slightly lugubrious, but there were notable benefits to the conductor’s approach. Allowed to expand without rushing, phrases often revealed beauties that remain hidden in speedier performances, and the singers were given the breadth and support that they needed to refine their characterizations. Turner’s conducting of the Ouvertüre ​had a depth that recalled the Wagner performances of Hans Knappertsbusch and Sir Reginald Goodall, the young maestro’s contrasted handling of the Allegro con brio, Andante, and Molto espressivo sections ideally balancing rhythmic tautness with unabashed Romanticism. The indebtedness of Wagner’s ensemble writing to Mozart, Beethoven, and Weber was especially apparent, and it was astonishing to note how closely the marvelous duet for Senta and the Holländer is related to the scene for newly-reunited father and daughter in Act One of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. The Richmond Symphony’s playing was little short of spectacular, the horns earning special praise for their near-perfect executions of their parts. Turner’s training of the Virginia Opera Chorus yielded choral singing that set a high standard with the first ‘Hojohe! Hallojo!’​ and maintained it throughout the performance, the quality of both voices and vocalism displayed by the tenors’ unbothered rise to top G in their opening phrase. Though falling victim to more rope-trick business and being asked to pop up and down in their chairs like citizens of a prairie dog town, the ladies were most impressive in ‘Summ’ und brumm’, du gutes Rädchen’ in the scene with Senta and Mary. Gentlemen and ladies sang powerfully in ‘Steuermann, laß die Wacht!’ and ‘Mein! Seht doch an!’ The foremost misjudgment of the afternoon was the garish over-amplification of the offstage singing of the Holländer’s crew. Presumably, the intended effect was an ethereal disembodiment of the voices, but it was overloud, ugly, and detrimental to enjoyment of the choristers’ expert work. This production of Der fliegende Holländer is Turner’s maiden voyage as a conductor of Wagner repertory, and the thoughtfulness and thorough preparation of this freshman outing suggest that he has exceptional promise as a Wagnerian.

It was wonderful to encounter in native New Zealander mezzo-soprano Rachelle Pike a Mary who was a foil for Senta who did not require the assistance of ear trumpets and walking canes. Age is one of opera’s confounding variables, but why so many productions dictate that Mary must sound like a crone is mystifying. Mary is no Ortrud, Venus, Brangäne, or Fricka, but she is a more significant presence in Der fliegende Holländer than many productions permit her to be. With her vibrant voicing of ‘Ei! Fleißig, fleißig! Wie sie spinnen will Jede sich den Schatz gewinnen,’ Pike enriched the scene at the start of Act Two—part of Act One in Virginia Opera’s production, which divided the opera into two acts, with the interval after Senta’s duet with the Holländer—with sounds that could be truly enjoyed, not merely endured. Her reading of ‘Das Schiffsvolk kommt mit leerem Magen’ was a taskmistress’s order that demanded obedience. Pike made Mary’s fear of the consequences of Senta’s obsession with the Holländer’s predicament palpable, her firm, musical singing far more effectively conveying the character’s panic than other singers’ shrewish wailing. Whatever a rôle’s duration, good singing always counts for much, and Virginia Opera had in Pike an uncommonly well-sung Mary. Whether she was intentionally costumed and posed whilst Daland introduced Senta to the Holländer to strongly resemble Whistler’s mother is a secret that this Holländer will take to Davy Jones’s Locker.

North Carolina-born tenor David Blalock was a Steuermann whose secure, sonorous singing reminded the listener that voices as beautiful as those of Ernst Haefliger, Anton Dermota, Fritz Wunderlich, and George Shirley were once heard in the rôle, both in opera houses and on disc. Blalock’s performance was a wonderful return to this tradition, his refined but robust vocalism seeming as capable of meeting the demands of Erik’s music as it was of making easy going of the Steuermann’s lines. In Act One, Blalock sang ‘Ho! Kapitän!’ with good-natured zeal, his G at the top of the stave easy and ringing. He phrased the Steuermann’s Lied, ‘Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer,’ with boyish charm, his golden top B♭ like a lover’s sigh. Later, his voicing of ‘’Sist nichts, ’sist nichts!’ and ‘Fürwahr! Tragst’s hin den armen Knaben!’ was delightfully confident. Like Pike’s Mary, Blalock’s Steuermann was a tremendous boon, a performance of leading-man quality in a rôle that in recent years has rarely received such treatment.

Wagner’s music for Erik, the conformist yokel who earnestly woos Senta and is a symbolic representative of the oppressive society from which she longs to escape, asked nothing of tenor Corey Bix that was not well within the scope of his capabilities. The tessitura that Erik faces is evident immediately upon his entrance, the first note that he sings being a top A, and Bix shrank from none of the rigors of ‘Senta! Willst du mich verderben?’ or the energetic duet with Senta, ‘Bleib’, Senta! Bleib’ nur einen Augenblick.’ In what is generally Act Three, Bix fired ‘Was mußt’ ich hören!’ like a warning shot from his hunting rifle, and the tenor’s performance of Erik’s Kavatine, ‘Willst jenes Tag’s du dich nicht mehr entsinnen,’ was distinguished by nimble negotiations of the turns and top B♭. Still, it was not difficult to discern why Senta so readily abandoned her dalliance with Erik in order to surrender to her fascination with the enigmatic Holländer: would any self-respecting lady with an adventurous imagination ally herself with a man whose every word is shouted at her? This is as much Wagner’s fault as the tenor’s, of course, but other singers—the young Sándor Kónya, for one—have deployed greater finesse in their performances of Erik’s music. Crucially, though, few of today’s Eriks sing the rôle as ably as Bix breathed life into his foursquare lines in Richmond.

Bass Peter Volpe’s sonorous, refreshingly uncomplicated Daland, as much a descendant of Rossini’s money-hungry Don Basilio as of Mozart’s Osmin and Beethoven’s Rocco, proffered in Virginia Opera’s Fliegende Holländer the levity that was surely a vital aspect of Wagner’s vision. The character’s untroubled spirit emanated from Volpe’s singing of ‘Kein Zweifel! Sieben Meilen fort trieb uns der Sturm von sich’ren Port’ and ‘He! Holla! Steuermann!’ His appetite for material gain whetted in the Duett with the Holländer, this Daland declaimed ‘Wie wunderbar! Soll deinem Wort ich glauben?’ with the exuberance of a card shark holding a winning hand. Glimpses of a more serious facet of Daland’s brassy demeanor flickered through Volpe’s singing of the aria ‘Mögst du, mein Kind, den fremden Mann willkommen heißen,’ his voice glowing more brightly than the cask of riches laid before him by the Holländer. His function in the brief Terzett with Senta and Holländer amounted to little more than anchoring a few chords, but Volpe did even that with panache. Ending the opera with Senta asphyxiating herself—a final use of the rope motif and here one with an unsavory hint of autoeroticism—was one of the production’s rare disfiguring misfires, but having Daland gently caress Senta’s lifeless hand as the curtain descended, the first and ultimately sole gesture of genuine affection between father and daughter in the performance, was surprisingly moving. Volpe’s voice was audible throughout the range of the music, and this Daland’s cheery disposition—no careworn old sea dog, this fellow!—shone as luminously when he was silent as when he sang.

American soprano Christina Pier, a winner of the Metropolitan Opera’s prestigious National Council Auditions and a student of the acclaimed Romanian soprano Virginia Zeani, herself an unexpectedly effective heroine in performances of Der fliegende Holländer sung in Italian, proved a Senta with nothing to fear from comparisons with the great Sentas of previous generations. Unlike many of her colleagues who now sing the rôle, Pier possesses a voice of dimensions equal to Senta’s music, her upper register focused and utterly reliable but also skillfully integrated with the bottom octave of the voice. Moreover, Pier is an expressive artist who communicates more than words, pitches, and rhythms. Singing ‘Was hast du Kunde mir gegeben’ inwardly, Pier was from the start a Senta trapped between fantasy and dreary reality. Battling a slow tempo, Pier conjured an atmosphere of near-ecstatic concentration in the Ballade, ‘Jo ho hoe! Traft ihr das Schiff.’ In the piece’s Più lento section, ‘Doch kann dem bleichen Manne Erlösung einstens noch werden,’ her voice radiated girlish purity, the profusion of Gs at the top of the stave mastered unflinchingly. The soprano’s Senta grew ever more agitated and justifiably frustrated in the Duett with Erik, but her singing of the Lento ‘Fühlst du den Schmerz, den tiefen Gram, mit dem herab auf mich er sieht?’ was shaped by a beautifully-extended bel canto line. Her patience finally failed her in the Allegro con fuoco section, ‘Er sucht mich auf,’ and she lashed at the guileless Erik with a mighty top A. The dramatic temperature of Senta’s pivotal Duett with the Holländer was elevated markedly by Pier’s incandescent voicing of ‘Versank ich jetzt in wunderbares Träumen,’ the ecstatic top Bs igniting the dark surroundings like Saint Elmo’s fire. Confronted by conventionality one last time, this Senta was passive, even indifferent in the brief Duett with Erik preceding his Kavatine. Observed with Erik by the Holländer, who mistakes her rejection of the huntsman for tenderness, Pier explained Senta’s actions with a scorching performance of ‘Halt’ ein! Von dannen sollst du nimmer flieh’n!’ Forever joining her fate with that of the Holländer, Senta has her own Liebestod in miniature, and Pier sang ‘Preis’ deinen Engel und sein Gebot!’ with astounding singularity of purpose and phenomenal top As and B. The scarcity of dramatic voices among today’s singers is often—and justifiably—lamented, especially by earnest Wagnerians, but Sentas of the quality that Pier accomplished in Richmond are neither more nor less plentiful now than when Kirsten Flagstad sang Senta in Covent Garden’s 1937 Coronation Season or when Astrid Varnay interpreted her at the MET in 1950 and 1951 and at Bayreuth in 1955, 1956, and 1959. Singing such as Pier’s is always a precious commodity. That she was not as convincing dramatically as she was dominant musically was the result of a staging that needlessly highlighted her minor weaknesses rather than exploiting her considerable strengths, but Virginia Opera can rightly boast of having offered audiences a sensational, once-in-a-generation Senta.

Having heard bass-baritone Wayne Tigges’s smug, slyly menacing Assur in Waahington Concert Opera’s November 2015 performance of Rossini’s Semiramide [reviewed here], it was difficult to believe that the same artist sang the Holländer in Richmond. It was the same imposing, sinewy voice, of course, but the snarling mettle of the singer’s Assur here metamorphosed into an engrossing vulnerability. From the first hushed notes of his Act One aria ‘Die Frist ist um,’ this Holländer was plainly a broken man but very much a man, not a phantom. The thunderous power of Tigges’ voice was unleashed in the Allegro molto agitato section, ‘Wie oft in Meeres tiefsten Schlund stürtz’ ich voll Sehnsucht mich hinab: doch ach! den Tod, ich fand ihn nicht,’ the bass-baritone weathering the repeated ascents to top E♭ with the dependability of the tide. In the wake of such vocal muscularity, the heartrending sadness of Tigges’ articulation of the Maestoso ‘Dich frage ich, gepries’ner Engel Gottes’ was stunning and all the more profound. The sheer exhaustion of the Holländer’s beleaguered spirit weighted the singer’s heartfelt delivery of ‘Weit komm’ ich her: verwehrt bei Sturm und Wetter ihr mir den Ankerplatz?’ In the Duett with Daland, Tigges voiced ‘Durch Sturm und bösen Wind verschlagen’ with guarded elation, his hope returning with the prospect of winning Senta’s hand. Meeting the cause of his renewed optimism, he sang ‘Wie aus der Ferne längst vergangner Zeiten spricht dieses Mädchens Bild zu mir’ in the Duett with Senta with touching amazement, recognizing in the naïve young woman before him traits unknown even to a soul forced to endlessly wander the earth. In the Duett’s Molto più section, Tigges uttered ‘Du bist ein Engel!’ with grave beauty of tone, giving voice to the Holländer’s anticipation of his long-awaited rebirth. Finding Senta in Erik’s arms in the penultimate scene, the magnitude of Tigges’s singing of ‘Verloren! Ach! verloren!’ was transfixing not because of the character’s capacity for violence but owing to the bitterness of his despair. Revealing the Holländer’s true identity, which only Senta had truly grasped, Tigges flung out the text of ‘Erhahre das Geschick, vor dem ich dich bewahr’!’ breathtakingly. Tigges had at his disposal the full measure of brute force that the scale of the Holländer’s music necessitates, but his performance was most remarkable for the poignantly suffering man that he created beneath the Holländer’s ghastly persona. It is unusual that a Holländer impresses as much with beauty as with brawn, but, like Hans Hotter, Friedrich Schorr, and Josef Metternich before him, Tigges’s portrayal of the Holländer was guided by the humanity with which Wagner imbued this most emotionally ephemeral of his heroes.

Der fliegende Holländer was a milestone in Wagner’s career and in the progress of German opera from the work of Baroque master Reinhard Keiser to the scores of modern composers like Hans Werner Henze and Aribert Reimann. In the pages of Der fliegende Holländer, Wagner not only paved the way for his later masterpieces but also provided a tangible connection between Teutonic styles old and new. As it was when the company first staged the opera in 1996, this production of Der fliegende Holländer is likewise a milestone in Virginia Opera’s continuing dedication to bringing world-class opera to the Old Dominion. Sunday’s performance was a celebration of collaborative music making that reaffirmed that even in the metaphysical realm of Wagner’s operas voices eclipse vanities.

IN PERFORMANCE: Bass-baritone WAYNE TIGGES as Der Holländer in Virginia Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER, April 2016 [Photo by Lucid Frame Productions, © by Virginia Opera]Heil, Holländer: Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges as Der Holländer in Virginia Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, April 2016 [Photo by Lucid Frame Productions, © by Virginia Opera]