The Flying Dutchman

Music and text by Richard Wagner

Conducted by Patrick Summers

Direction and set design by Petrika Ionesco

San Francisco Opera

Oct. 22-Nov. 15, 2013

Just in time for Halloween comes a spooky ghost story from the legendary past. The best thing about this one is the beautiful music it’s set to. Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” (“Der fliegende Holländer” if you prefer it in German) is a haunting tale of a cursed mariner, doomed to sail the seas until the end of time, and the maiden obsessed with personally breaking the spell. If the Dutchman, who is allowed to make port once every seven years, can find a woman who will be true to him unto death he will be released from the curse. Young Senta is determined to be that woman.

The production that sailed into San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House this week mostly gets the music right. From the famous overture (Oh those horns!), conductor Patrick Summers has a sure hand on the helm. The San Francisco Opera Chorus is spectacular, never so much as in the Act III “Steersman” scene, where a wedding celebration on shore receives a hellish response from the Dutchman’s ghostly crew.

The lovely lass with the rescue fantasy (as doomed as the Dutchman himself) is the luminous Lise Lindstrom, a Bay Area native who has gone on to an international career. She not only looks the part but sings with a clarion soprano that belied the pre-curtain announcement that she was suffering from a cold. The singer was the shining focus of every scene in which she appeared and, since it essentially is her story after all, one wished to re-name the whole thing “Senta’s Obsession.”

Her ghostly lover is Greer Grimsley, recently the wondrous Wotan of Seattle Opera’s summer “Ring” cycle. Here, however, although he sings well, he is stiff and aloof and given to hand-over-the-heart stock gestures. There is little heat between him and his lady love. Perhaps he was afraid of catching her cold.

Daland, Senta’s greedy father who barters her for the unknown mariner’s chests of treasure, was splendidly delivered by Kristinn Sigmundsson. But Ian Storey, as Eric, Senta’s previously betrothed, was weak, wobbly and all but inaudible in his first scene. He hardly could be heard over the orchestra (and that was from the seventh row). He was much better in Act III with his final plea to his beloved, but it could not be called a stellar performance. A.J. Gluekert, a fellow in the opera company’s Adler training program, was a sweet-voiced Steersman.

The major problems with this production were not the music, early Wagner (he was 29 when it premiered) straddling the late Romantic Period and the great free-flowing music dramas that were yet to come, but the visual aspects. Excessive use of S. Katy Tucker’s video projections — seas, skies, storms, stars, fire and ships at sea — was distracting and often gratuitous. Technology is a great tool, but sometimes less can be more. Set designer Petrika Ionesco did better: the inside of the Dutchman’s ship truly conjured the bowels of Hell and the Act II workroom in Daland’s house, where the women sing their splendid “Spinning Chorus,” was lofty and simple, as it should be. But as director, before he reportedly pulled out, leaving the cast to its own devices, Ionesco was less successful. The production has a certain inert quality, not only in the interaction between the lovers but overall. The sailors list from side to side in a storm and do an awkward little clog dance when they are drunk. The spinning scene is more graceful and lively, but then the static quality creeps back in.

I remember a long-ago Chicago Lyric Opera staging where the soprano, in a bright red modern dress and boots, straddled a chair and sang her great soliloquy about the Dutchman’s plight and her resolve to save him (be careful of what you wish for; you just might get it) directly to the audience. Now that was a staging and a heroine to be reckoned with.

Oh well, if you don’t like what you are seeing, you can just close your eyes and listen to the music. And that is glorious.

San Francisco, CA
Suzanne Weiss has been writing about the arts for the past 35 years. Formerly Arts Editor for the papers of Pioneer Press in the northern Chicago suburban area, her work also has appeared in Stagebill and Crain’s Chicago Business, among other publications. Since moving to the Bay Area she has reviewed theater, opera, dance and the occasional film for the San Mateo Times, “J” and is a regular contributor to culturevulture. She is the author of “Glencoe, Queen of Suburbs.”