The operas of Richard Wagner are now staples of the international repertoire, especially as Ring Cycles pop up everywhere these days. Yet only with this weekend's production of The Flying Dutchman did Wagner come to the Madison Opera. It is to the great credit of company director Allan Naplan and conductor John DeMain that the 48-season jinx was finally lifted. The production opened Friday night in Overture Hall.
The choice of the opera was a sensible one: a straight-forward story of romantic love pitted against supernatural horror, enveloped in the composer's first truly mature, wonderfully rich operatic score. The plot synthesizes the theme of the Wandering Jew with nautical and literary legends of a sea captain's blasphemous vow. The captain is doomed to eternal wandering of the seas on a ghost ship, until he can be redeemed by the love of a faithful wife. Working amid a fashion for operas on supernatural stories, and drawing on recollections of a stormy North Sea voyage of his own, Wagner also looked forward. The ideas of the lonely despair of an isolated hero, of redemption through a woman's love and shared death, were ones he would develop further in his subsequent operas, while he pioneered here his future use of leitmotifs.
The success of this first Wagner venture was founded partly on a reliable cast. In the title role of the Dutchman, baritone Bradley Garvin lacked the weight and vocal darkness that bass voices often bring to the role. But his smooth singing and impressive bearing suggested the accursed captain still had remnants of youth amid weary disillusionment. As Senta, the Norwegian maiden who would save him, an appropriately Norwegian soprano, Turid Karlsen, sang with strength, purity of sound, and emotional commitment. Senta's father, Daland, became a little less grasping and conniving in his greed and more of a comic foil as portrayed by bass Dean Peterson, whose wonderful singing and acting were a joy to ear and eye. As Senta's rejected lover, Erik, Arnold Rawls sang with a somewhat Italianate quality, but still made a strong personality out of a marginal character.
The lesser roles were wonderfully served by two locals: soprano Julia Faulkner as Mary, and Gregory Schmidt as the tipsy steersman. But a major protagonist in this opera is the chorus: the women in the sewing scene in Act II, and the whole troupe in the opening of Act III, one of the greatest choral scenes in opera. Chorus master Andrew Abrams had prepared his forces superbly, and the choreography of their big episode was masterful. Indeed, the movements and action designs by director Michael Scarola were both deft and apt throughout.
The production was derived from the New York City Opera, via the Washington National Opera. The set involved a certain amount of distortion and symbolism, with much use of scrims and partition curtains, including a recurrent projection of a sky- and seascape colored variously by lighting. Some arguable details aside, the staging sustained, rather than undermined, Wagner's dramatic concepts.
Congratulations are due all hands for this milestone achievement by Madison Opera. The remaining performance is Sunday, April 11, at 2:30 p.m.