West Bay Opera’s production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman is a bit like an old muscle car: a little rough around the edges, but equipped with a powerful engine.
Just to rip off the Band-Aids, let’s start with the complaints. The strings have a hard time keeping up with young Wagner’s challenging score, notably in the overture and the first act, leading to a few off notes. Stage director Ragnar Conde doesn’t fully succeed in fighting off the static nature of Wagner’s libretto. Even the act three chorus scene, suitably rowdy and festive, is bedeviled by timidity in the vocal parts. And although the combination of projections and sets provide some striking images, Peter Crompton’s design sometimes seemed cluttered, as if it were attempting to deliver too many messages all at once.
There now. Feel better? Let’s head on to the good stuff. Tenor Salvatore Atti provides immediate vocal pastries with his lovely lyric reading of “Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer,” a simple and sweet song to his faraway beloved. Whereupon he drifts off to sleep (because he’s a terrible night watchman), and continues to drowse through the arrival of a ghostly ship with flame-red sails and black masts (vividly portrayed through projections by Peter Crompton and Frederic O. Boulay). Disembarking from that ship is a figure in black, The Flying Dutchman, and it’s then that the fireworks begin.
I saw baritone Robert Balonek last month in the brief role of Angelotti in Opera San Jose’s "Tosca," and I know I wasn’t the only one who wished he had more stage time. Here, he opens with thunder, lightning and a superbly rich voice that delivers the depth of a bass-baritone. The Dutchman’s opening monologue is a 6/8 Allegro molto agitato, “Wie off in Meeres tiefsten Schlund,” that uses the orchestra to play the part of a frightening seastorm. Balonek sang of his curse with such fervor I wondered if he could maintain such energy through the rest of the opera. (FYI, the Dutchman has been cursed by the devil to sail the world’s oceans for all eternity, but every seven years he’s granted a single day on land to find a woman who will remain faithful to him till death.)
The Norwegian captain Daland (baritone Joshua Hughes) is spooked by the mysterious new arrival, but when he discovers the man is filthy rich and interested in marrying his daughter Senta, he’s thrilled. It’s quite a coincidence that Senta just happens to be obsessed with the Flying Dutchman, in a Swiftie fangirl sort of way. Soprano Meredith Bloomfield, just as powerful a singer as Balonek, relates the tale of the Dutchman to her sailor’s-wife cohorts, giving a wide-eyed fascination to her performance, and declares that she means to be the instrument of the poor man’s salvation.
And then, of course, the Dutchman himself walks through the door, already having won the promise of Senta’s hand in marriage. This entrance is made magic by Balonek’s Eastwoodian presence and a thick silence, broken only by a few beats from the timpani. What follows is a seminar in how to fall in love on purpose in 15 minutes. The match of the two strong voices is divine, particularly in the duet cadenzas, completely unaccompanied, the singers signaling each other with facial expressions and nods. The dance of the Dutchman and Senta is an exquisite scene, and a prefiguration of what Wagner would carry to incredible extremes in "Tristan und Isolde."
I always feel a bit sorry for whoever plays Erik, Senta’s soon-to-be ex-boyfriend. I’m sure he’s an excellent huntsman, and great at barbecues, but it’s clear that Senta has a missionary complex and you’re just not going to win a pity contest with a guy who’s been damned to spend all eternity sailing the seven seas. Tenor John Kun Park can always console himself with the fact that he possesses a fine lirico spinto, and gets to sing Erik’s (predictably foreboding) Dream Narration, the most advanced composition in the opera.
The backstage men’s chorus did an excellent job of providing the disembodied voices of the ghost ship crew (with sound designer Giselle Lee) as they terrorize the wedding feast. Also (Spoiler alert!), the projections accomplish what few productions manage, sending the suicide Senta off to the heavens to be with her finally liberated Dutchman.
8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. $35-$92. wbopera.org, 650-424-9999.