PORTLAND, OR — Der Fliegende Holländer, Portland Opera, 3/24/07
Time was when Portland Opera regularly produced Wagner's music dramas — five of them from 1973 through 1983. Then, while nearby Seattle Opera solidified its "American Bayreuth" claim, Portland spent twenty-fours years during which the only Wagner was a nightmare — a 1994 Der Fliegende Holländer with large cuts made to help a voiceless, coverless, desperately ill Dutchman get to the end of the evening.
Wagner and Der Fliegende Holländer returned to Portland on March 24 with strikingly different results. Richard Paul Fink was a healthy, big-voiced, commanding Dutchman. David Parry's conducting and the Portland Opera Chorus were superb. Best of all, stage director Christopher Alden delivered the most powerful, penetrating staging in the company's history.
Alden created the physical production for Canadian Opera in 1996. Advance publicity in Portland dwelt on its skewed-box set, its Nazi-era imagery, its identification of the Dutchman with the legendary Wandering Jew. Set, costumes and lighting contributed, but the most disturbing, eloquent element of the staging was the rigorously choreographed movement.
With machine-like precision, the wheel-less spinning women gesticulated and stamped their feet. By "Steuermann, lass die Wacht!" the mass rhythmic stomping and wall- and table-pounding had become the drumbeat of a lockstep society from which anyone who deviated was ostracized. The deviants moved slowly — the Dutchman cowed and weary, Senta as if in a trance. Erik, with a foot in each world, veered wildly, out of control.
When these three passionate characters sang, the artists consistently used expressive body language and unusual positions for singing, which often was directed away from the audience. The Dutchman sang the slow section of "Die Frist ist um" crumpled against the set's back wall. Senta sang her ballad sitting rigidly, fixated on the Dutchman's portrait. Relating his dream, Erik lay on top of Senta and threw his despair in her face. The Dutchman, in contrast, hardly dared look at her, singing much of their duet with his face toward, and contorted hands on, an upstage door.
The opera was performed without pause, and by the central Erik–Senta and Dutchman–Senta scenes, it had become mesmerizing. Conductor Parry took the Dutchman–Senta duet at an achingly slow tempo, but it was taut and deeply moving. Parry presided over a dramatic overture and swaggering choruses. The orchestra, with extra horns and piccolos, was excellent. The chorus, long a company strength, was visually compelling and vocally glorious in perhaps its greatest performance.
Fink, a heavy-set baritone with a low center of gravity — an Alberich rather than a Wotan — was not a noble, romantic Dutchman, but he was ideal for Alden's staging, which required that the Dutchman be an object of compassion for the audience as well as for Senta. Vocally, Fink was all one could want, and when he twice climbed spiraling stairs high in a corner of the set and thundered from a surprising acoustical sweet spot, the night seemed charmed indeed.
Apart from Fink, the cast was vocally adequate. All were persuasive actors, another sign of strong direction. Visually, Elizabeth Byrne's homely, poignant Senta was a triumph of hypnotic concentration. Vocally, she began with a wobble, then settled down, meeting the role's demands but with a lusterless soprano.
Matthew Kirchner's rifle-toting Erik was unhinged and dangerous, his tenor sturdy but undistinguished. Bass Kevin Langan sang sturdily as Daland, a solid citizen outwardly but a covert abuser who dealt away and mouth-kissed his daughter. Mezzo-soprano Allison Swensen-Mitchell was a businesslike Mary. Tenor Daniel Montenegro was a plaintive Steersman.
The final scene was remarkable, with Mary so affected by Senta's plight that she too was drawn to the Dutchman's portrait; Daland giving up, unable to deal with the Dutchman and Senta's world; Erik flipping out completely. When he raised his rifle, Senta raised the portrait — as shield, or as suicidal gesture? Erik's bullet pierced the portrait and Senta's heart, giving the girl he loved and the Dutchman their desired release.