Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, based on the legend of a sea captain condemned by Satan to roam the seas for eternity unless he can find a faithful lover, dropped anchor Saturday night at the Detroit Opera House. And though the work opens with a turbulent storm, Michigan Opera Theatre’s (MOT) production was mostly smooth sailing.
Just as you can’t have a convincing performance of Hamlet without a strong title character, you can’t mount a persuasive production of The Flying Dutchman without a Dutchman who can deliver the part with panache. There were no reservations about German bass-baritone Thomas Gazheli, who made his MOT debut. He’s got a big, brawny voice, but he knows how to use it to dramatic effect. His first-act Monologue was infused with agony and sad resignation, but when power was required, he rolled out the cannons.
Soprano Lori Phillips, as Senta, also debuted with a bang. She attacks high notes the way sharpshooter Annie Oakley shattered her targets. However, she was occasionally shrill and her exposed notes had a tendency to spread. But she’s the real deal: a Wagnerian soprano with herculean lungs who also knows how to project subtlety when it’s needed, as she did in her second-act Ballad.
Turkish bass Burak Bilgili turned in a commanding performance as Daland, and tenor John Pickle was a robust Erik, Senta’s hapless suitor who knows his affections are useless against the Dutchman’s allures.
In rehearsals, chorus master Suzanne Mallare Acton must have worked herself to a shadow. Dutchman is chock-full of beefy choruses, including the Sailors’ Chorus and the Spinning Song, and making them cohesive is demanding work. Acton and her legion of singers pulled it off with dash.
Conductor Steven Mercurio was at the helm, and it was a good thing he was because wimpy conductors have no business messing with this score. If you don’t have the stamina of a thoroughbred it’s best to leave the baton alone. But the way Mercurio urged the orchestra to play with such arching, romantic sweep and spot-on intonation in the overture set the tone for the rest of the opera.
R. Keith Brumley’s impressive sets, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and Donald Thomas’ moody lighting heightened the ghostly, brooding atmosphere.
Overall, Bernard Uzan’s directing was on the mark, but placing an adolescent Senta on stage during the overture, as she traded her doll for a ship as a plaything, was hokey and heavy-handed.
Initially, the huge video projection of a storm-tossed ship at sea during the overture was off-putting, because the music is strong enough to stand on its own without visuals. However, it served as a connective dramatic thread when the projection returned at the end during the transfiguration of Senta and the Dutchman as they were reunited in love after death. In Wagner’s world, true love is achievable only through self-sacrifice (usually death) and redemption, a theme that turns up in many of his operas, including Tristan und Isolde, Tannhauser, Parsifal, and of course, the Ring cycle.
Granted, Wagner’s approach to romance is a little twisted, but the theatrical results he achieved are hard to argue with.
The cast repeats Oct. 23 and 26. Elisabet Strid alternates as Senta and Kristopher Irmiter sings the Dutchman Oct. 25 and 27. Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, downtown Detroit. Tickets are $25-$125. 313-237-SING; michiganopera.org.