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Thursday, December 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Overcast
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With The Flying Dutchman, Madison Opera at last stages Wagner
Ghost Ship
Wagner based his libretto on the legend of a phantom vessel that sails the ocean forever.
Wagner based his libretto on the legend of a phantom vessel that sails the ocean forever.
Credit:Washington National Opera

The Madison Opera marks another milestone with its production of Richard Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, which opens April 9. The work, which premiered in 1843, will be the first Wagner opera produced in the company's 49-year history, and Overture Hall's stage will be transformed into a vast ocean whose shores harbor the Dutchman's eerie ship.

Michael Scarola, who gave us Rigoletto in 2006 and Lucia di Lammermoor in 2008, directs. He has a long relationship with Wagner operas.

"I first discovered Wagner when I was 8 years old," he told an attentive audience at Opera Up Close, Madison Opera's March 28 talk previewing the production. "When I was 11, I saw my first Wagner opera, Parsifal, all 5½ hours of it."

The Flying Dutchman is an important event for the company, according to Scarola. "Moving into Wagner creates a whole different dimension for an opera company."

Wagner based his libretto on the centuries-old legend, recounted in a famous version by German poet Heinrich Heine, of a ghost ship that sails the ocean forever. The libretto tells of a Dutch sea captain who is cursed to sail the seas until Judgment Day, because he tempted fate and defied Satan when he attempted to round a dangerous cape during a violent storm. The only antidote is unconditional love, and to that end, the Dutchman is allowed to anchor his ship every seven years to search for a woman who will love him until death.

The set and costume designs for this weekend's production come to us from the Washington National Opera and originated at New York City Opera. Since Wagner worked on a grand scale, set designer Giles Cadle and lighting designer Christopher Rynne are commingling their artistry to create the illusion of infinite space.

The Dutchman's spectral ship gives the designers a good deal of creative license, since it has developed several embodiments over the years. Sometimes it's described as having blood red sails and a black mast, while other descriptions portray a pale vessel, hovering at sea like a mirage.

"The set is angular, abstract and surreal," says Scarola. Bright primary colors like red, yellow and blue render a stark atmosphere.

The opera was well received at its New York and Washington venues. It is, says Madison Opera general director Allan Naplan, bold.

Before the action unfolds on stage, the mood is set in the overture, a stormy piece in D minor. In it, Wagner introduces the Dutchman and his world through a series of leitmotifs.

"The Dutchman uses forms that are similar to Italian opera," says John DeMain, artistic director of the Madison Opera. "It has arias, duets and stretto, but what makes it Wagner are the leitmotifs, themes that are stated for each character and transformed throughout the work."

For example, the Dutchman's theme is composed of intervals of 4ths and 5ths that give his character a stark, noble presence. Chromatic scales depict a storm at the height of its frenzy as they rip through the string section like wind whistling across the waves. And the redemption theme lilts over triadic harmonies that suggest peace and reconciliation.

Wagner brings us into the opera as the storm rages and a ship anchors close to a steep, rocky shore in Norway. The ship belongs to Daland, a Norwegian captain (bass Dean Peterson) whose home is not far away. The steersman (tenor Gregory Schmidt) is keeping watch over the vessel when a second ship arrives. It's the Dutchman's ship with its ghostly crew. The Dutchman (bass-baritone Bradley Garvin) comes ashore and sings of his woes. Another seven years of wandering are over, and he has come in search of a wife who will redeem him through her unconditional love.

The Dutchman asks Daland if he can stay the night at his home. As a reward for his hospitality, he will receive sapphires, emeralds, pearls and diamonds galore, but the bargaining doesn't end there. The Dutchman asks Daland if he has a daughter. There is little negotiation as Daland consents to give his daughter Senta (soprano Turid Karlsen) to the Dutchman.

This exchange between Daland and the Dutchman happens quickly, and we might think that the father doesn't care about his daughter's wellbeing, but Garvin has a different take. "In The Flying Dutchman there are no soliloquies and none of the philosophizing that we get in Wagner's later operas, like the Ring Cycle," he says. "The Dutchman's characters simply make up their minds and act."

Dean Peterson, who plays Daland, has yet another idea. "Daland is probably thinking, here is a guy that seems forthright and open and has a shipload of treasure, so even if it doesn't work out, I can take care of myself and my daughter for the rest of my life. The Dutchman doesn't have much time to court and needs to make a deal quickly."

Senta, it turns out, is several steps ahead in the game. She knows the Dutchman's tale well and secretly wants to be the woman who saves him from his eternal wandering. We first see her gazing lovingly at a painting of the Dutchman that hangs in her father's home while her nurse Mary (Julia Faulkner) and friends busy themselves spinning cloth.

When the Dutchman arrives with her father, she is stunned. Daland leaves them in the room together, and they express their love for each other. But there is a glitch. Senta is engaged to Erik (tenor Arnold Rawls), or at least Erik is under that impression. He pleads with Senta to come to her senses and be with him.

When the Dutchman hears this exchange, he assumes that he has failed again to find the right woman. "It's hopeless," he shouts to his crew. "Anchors away, we leave the land forever!"

At the thought of losing the Dutchman, Senta throws herself off a cliff into the sea, proving that she is faithful to him until death. With the curse lifted, Senta and her Dutchman are transfigured and rise from the wreck of the ghost ship and soar upward into a rosy dawn.

"The score to the Dutchman is ravishingly beautiful and tuneful," says DeMain. "The audience can expect a rich, lush orchestra, not um-pah-pah, but significant music clearly orchestrated so as not to cover the voices."

For the first part of Act I, Daland and his crew live in a different sonic world from the Dutchman. They venture into bright major keys and sing of love. Not so the Dutchman, whose entrance comes after a spine-tingling scale rises from the depths to a B-natural, then falls ominously to an E-sharp, creating a ghostly effect.

To further dramatize the Dutchman's character, Wagner drops the tempo several notches for his recitative. But the music becomes brighter after the Dutchman learns that Daland has a daughter. Energy infuses his singing, and the sprightly duet he sings with Daland carries a glimmer of hope.

Musical tensions subside in Act II. Textures are lighter, keys brighter, and the music takes on a buoyant lilt. Act III begins with a rollicking German beer hall song, but as tension mounts, the key returns to the turbulent D minor of the overture. Textures thicken as the cast sings short, agitated phrases to save Senta from joining the Dutchman, and when she dies, the music seems to die with her.

But this is not Shakespearean tragedy. This is romance, and the redemption theme rises softly from the orchestra once again.

Besides marking a milestone in the history of the Madison Opera, The Flying Dutchman also marked a significant turning point in Wagner's career. It was composed in 1840-41 while Wagner was trying, unsuccessfully, to make a name for himself in Paris. These were hard times and, if it hadn't been for supporters like Giacomo Meyerbeer, Wagner and his first wife, Minna, would have come close to starving to death.

The difficulty of his 30-month stay in Paris impressed on him that there was no place for German opera in Paris or anywhere else. Even in Germany, Italian opera held sway until after Wagner's birth in 1813.

Even though The Flying Dutchman nods to the Italian opera tradition, it was meant for the German throat. It made new demands on singers that required them to immerse themselves in the drama, contrary to the stop-the-action-and-sing method that was common in the day.

When The Flying Dutchman premiered in Dresden, the reception was cool. Audiences and critics had expected something resembling grand opera, like Rienzi, the precursor to the Dutchman. It took about 10 years for The Flying Dutchman to gain acceptance and take its place in history as a seminal opera.

The opera will be performed in three acts, with an intermission between Act I and Act II. Scarola has chosen to join Acts II and III, so the action goes right through. This puts the running time at just under three hours. The production will be sung in German with projected English translations, and it will require incredible forces.

"The Madison Opera Chorus will be the largest that I've seen on stage in my time here," says Naplan.

"The singers have massive, elongated lines that require extreme endurance," says DeMain.

But the dramatic centerpiece of this production is the Dutchman's humanity. "Even though the drama is based in myth and legend, we need to find humanity in the Dutchman so we understand what Senta is giving herself up for," says Scarola. "I think we have found a way to bring this out.

As for the music, Scarola says, "This will be the most beautifully sung Flying Dutchman you're ever going to hear."

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