Saturday, November 2, 2013

A Dream Opera for Senta

Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman"
San Francisco Opera
October 31, 2013

I don't put much stock in director's program notes - the production should generally speak for itself - but Petrika Ionesco's notes for Der Fliegende Hollander proved especially enlightening. He viewed the opera through the mind of Senta, as if she were playing out her fantasies through the action on stage. This made sense of a production that, although dazzling and cinematic in its reliance on projections, sometimes seemed a little chaotic. An amateur painter with a high level of imagination, oppressed by the boring seaside life of her peers, Senta is really the most complex and fascinating persona on the stage.

Not that this was all about the visual, of course. There are some fantastic vocal talents in this production, beginning with world-beating baritone Greer Grimsley in the title role. Grimsley's instrument is a voice of malleable thunder, and he endows the ghost captain with a charismatic, powerful presence. Lise Lindstrom complements his performance with a Senta of true sensitivity, particularly in her famed Ballad, which ranges from the stirring fortes of the ghost ship's dark fate to finely nuanced phrases evoking her compassion for its tragic sailors. The interplay of Grimsley and Lindstrom in the lengthy Act Two duet was absorbing, due not just to their singing but to the fact that both of them are quite attractive human beings (and a solid rebuttal to the stereotype of pudgy, homely opera singers).

Playing the father, Daland, bass Kristinn Sigmundsson lent a solid presence and seemed to relish Daland's humorous outbursts, based mostly on his eagerness to give his daughter away for loads of loot. (The outright lie of his declaration to the captain - "Even without your wealth, you'd be my choice as son-in-law" - is delightful.) As the jealous fiance Erik, tenor Ian Storey sings well but pales in contrast to his more powerful stagemates (this is surprising, considering his memorable performance as Siegfried in SFO's Ring cycle), while tenor A.J. Glueckert, an artist in the Opera's Adler Fellow program, sang wonderfully in the lesser role of the Steersman, particularly in the Act One song to his long-unseen lover, "Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer."

The SFO Chorus excels throughout, notably the men, who sing in full-throttle opera singer mode in both the Act One reprise of the Steersman's Song and the spectacular standoff with the ghost sailors in Act Three, "Steuermann! Lass die Wacht!" Patrick Summers leads the orchestra with his usual Wagnerian expertise, highlighted by thrilling passages from the brass.

It was also great fun to find many opera-goers indulging in Halloween costumery. Our favorite was a stately gentleman of 70 years, equipped with rabbit ears, painted-on whiskers and a prop carrot. Yo-ho, old man!

Images: Greer Grimsley (The Dutchman) and Lise Lindstrom (Senta). Kristinn Sigmundsson (Daland). The interior of the ghost ship. Photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

 Through November 15, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $23-$385. 415/864-3330,

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the novels Operaville and Gabriella's Voice.

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