Two ships, two dark and mysterious stories. Death. For all the German vs. French musical differences, the operas “The Flying Dutchman,” and “Pelléas et Mélisande” share more than a little narrative similarity.
Bernard Holland, a critic in the “New York Times” in the 1980’s, wrote that the Debussy opera (“Pelléas et Mélisande”) might be the most successful of all Wagnerian operas. Wagner died in 1883, when Debussy was 21.
Wagner’s “Dutchman,” shares Santa Fe Opera’s 2023 summer season with “Pelléas” (among others). He also wrote 12 other produced operas, most notably his Ring Cycle. Debussy managed only the one opera (alongside his highly original orchestral music) but, as Holland put it,
“’Pelléas et Mélisande” is Wagner purged of its megalomanic proselytizing, of its tedious Germanic tendency to lecture. Debussy has replaced long-winded gods with real people. They are noble and mysterious and rise from some undetermined medieval past, but they speak quietly of everyday things – of the weather, perhaps, or a passing ship. Their unhappinesses and their passions pass between them in intimate and unstilted ways. They do not posture, orate or soliloquize.”
Watching the two operas on successive nights in Santa Fe offers an opportunity to contrast the different sounds, visual interpretations, and the pleasure, in “Dutchman,” of choruses sung by a small army of singers. “Pelléas et Méliisande,” features a lush soundscape of dreamy music and elliptical text, a story open to Impressionistic vagueness vs. Wagnerian broad strokes and mythology. However, “Dutchman” is early Wagner, and hints at an influence of the Romantic era composers preceding it in opera. The music is considered Wagner-lite, the first development of his mature style, an oeuvre dominated by horns, a thousand violins, and Brünnhilde.
To be clear, Wagner’s Ring Cycle, including “Das Reingold,” “Die Walküre,” “Siegfried,” and “Götterdämmerung,” is guilty of all of the above German excesses, but the music is as stirring and majestic as it comes. Debussy, who was French, invented musical impressionism and was also influenced textually by symbolism, a literary movement at the early part of the 19th century. This could be seen as a reaction to the work of Wagner, as well as a movement towards a new way of storytelling.
The castle-bound world of “P et T” is murky and mysterious. A corpse that looks just like Mélisande floats past her as she meets her future husband, both of them lost in the forest at the opera’s opening. She is as defensive and damaged as a wounded animal. There is no hint of romance between the hunter, Golaud, in a stand-out performance by Zachary Nelson, and Mélisande, sung beautifully by Samantha Hankey, but they somehow end-up married. After an uncertain journey in a sailing ship, they arrive to a castle haunted by death, surrounded by darkness and forest; a hermetic environment where Golaud’s half-brother Pelléas lives with his ailing grandfather, the king, and where the remainder of the opera takes place.
“Flying Dutchman’s” ghost ship is inhabited, in this production, by faceless sailors; it is a three-story metal structure, like a rusting cannery without a mast or sail. “P et T” features its own sailing ship, delivering Golaud and Mélisande to the castle, which is done up in a post-apocalyptic manner, an enclosed environment where turbines send-in fresh air, food is grown under lights, and the inhabitants live in a kind of “Love Island,” incubator, awaiting their fate. “Dutchman” features a captain condemned to sail a ship of ghosts endlessly around the sea except for a chance, every seven years, to put into port and seek redemption from the love of “a good woman.”
Netia Jones was the director, scenic, costume and projection designer for “P et T.” She brilliantly creates a mood to match the meandering style of Debussy. The use of projections offers texture that wraps the playing space in a slowly changing tapestry of image, often suggesting the subconscious state of the performers, other times adding to long musical interludes where the orchestra becomes omniscient, where the action pauses and feelings drift through the air. Santa Fe’s hillside, open-air theatre can be dominated by its views of sunsets and landscape in the distance. Jones’ set brings the focus back to Debussy. Her singers beautifully illustrate how the interplay of three characters and love can suggest larger, even global tensions. The setting suggests a post-Apocalpytic world but stays grounded in nature, along with, because of Debussy’s obsession, an omnipresent ocean.
“Dutchman’s” singers, especially Nicholas Brownlee as Dutchman, and Elza van den Heever as Senta, offered power, emotion and the lung-power to sing Wagner outdoors. It should be noted that the whole cast was on the young side, a positive note that big voices of the future are here. Brownlee, a former apprentice at the SFO, has a big career ahead of him, and van den Heever, who sang the Senta role at the Metropolitan Opera last season, began her SFO resume with Mozart (as Donna Anna in “Don Giovanni” in 2009), a sign that her voice has been matured carefully in order to reach the apotheosis that, for a soprano, is Wagner.