Opera Carolina’s ‘Dutchman’ flies high

Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” is the most tempest-tossed work in musical history – and for good reason. Wagner, who was escaping his creditors by being smuggled on board a ship on the North Sea, soon found himself on a nightmare voyage. The ship was nearly wrecked countless times, and Wagner was often threatened with being thrown overboard as bad luck. “The Flying Dutchman” was born from this experience.

It is the first opera in which the orchestra acts as a major character, and Wagner’s first masterpiece. Opera Carolina’s production, the first in 20 years, was done to celebrate Wagner’s bicentennial, and they treated it as an act of love.

The playing of the orchestra on opening night under the direction of James Meena had an impetuous sweep. The horn playing was chilling and dark, the strings burnished, the winds piquant. The tender moments were also accounted for in ravishing detail. Meena always gets an ample sound from the pit, but this time they surpassed themselves.

Greer Grimsley brought a certain wisdom to the title role, conveying the Dutchman’s weary urgency without resorting to histrionic clichés. His voice is beautiful, and he was heard over the orchestra free from the Wagnerian barking that sometimes disfigures this part. His performance alone would make this production worth hearing.

In the role of the mercenary Daland, Kristopher Irmiter was also insightful. He obeyed Wagner’s dictum not to play the role as a buffoon. He can be relied upon to bring intelligence to whatever role he plays.

Elizabeth Beers Kataria’s Senta was less satisfactory. I had the impression that she was not at her best. She performed with great conviction but was hampered by a squalliness in the upper registers and a flutter in mid-range. Even so, she gave the ballad of the Dutchman, which lies at the center of the work, its requisite spookiness, and was as convincing in the final trio.

Erik, the hunter, betrothed to Senta (who is in love with the Dutchman’s portrait) is a bit of a stick. In Wagner’s libretto, he seems to complain about not being loved enough despite bringing his girl quantities of venison. Jason Wickson nevertheless sang the role with a ringing clarity and made this jilted part plausible.

Luretta Bybee’s Mary was a proper fit. Daniel Stein’s Steersman was sweet-toned but underpowered.

The men of the Opera Carolina Chorus sang with piratical fervor as Daland’s crew, greatly enhancing the merits of the production. The women’s spinning chorus matched them, and the combined forces in Act 3 were stirring.

“The Flying Dutchman” is a great opera, but a problematic one. One of the problems is moving the action forward when the characters tend to explain their positions much as people undergoing psychoanalysis do, at length and more than once.

The scenic design and special effects were undoubtedly conceived in the awareness of this, but sometimes misfired. The portrait of the Dutchman which Senta is in love with was never small and sometimes grew to the size of a billboard. The lighting was gorgeous, but there was sometimes a little too much of it; it underlined what the music was already eloquently stating.

The most serious flaw in the production, however, was at the very end, which was unclear about Wagner’s intention to show the transfigured souls of “The Flying Dutchman” and Senta ascending into the empyrean. In this case, one could not be sure where – if anywhere – they went.

A quick fix might be to employ the Caspar David Friedrich sepia of ascending angels used elsewhere. It is a little thing, but much.