After a long winter’s nap, the Washington National Opera (WNO) made its triumphant spring return to the Kennedy Center’s Opera House with a vocally dazzling presentation of Richard Wagner’s “Der Fliegende Hollander” (“The Flying Dutchman”) on Saturday. Bass-baritone Alan Held, a Washington favorite, appears as the Dutchman, and soprano Jennifer Wilson makes her company debut as Senta, his would-be redemptrix.
“The Flying Dutchman,” arguably the first opera of the composer’s mature period, is based on the legend of a headstrong, prideful sea captain who is cursed by the devil for his ambitions and doomed to sail the tempest-tossed seas in his dreaded ghost ship for eternity.
But even the devil has a heart, apparently. The Dutchman (we are never told his name) gets an opportunity to go ashore briefly every seven years. If he can find a woman who loves him enough to share his fate, both he and she will achieve everlasting redemption.
Played against a simple, surprisingly successful modernist set imported from the New York City Opera and directed boldly and well by Stephen Lawless, this WNO production is notable not only for the nearly flawless singing of its principals but for first-rate chorus work as well.
This writer recalls interviewing Mr. Held for a Reston community paper in the late 1980s when he was an up-and-coming singer working with the Wolf Trap Opera. He emphasized his commitment to evolving into a “helden-baritone,” a heroic baritone capable of expressing Wagnerian emotional excess over a huge orchestra.
How brilliantly Mr. Held has achieved his ambition. Now a star at the Met and renowned throughout the world for his command of Wagnerian roles, he never strains for notes and simultaneously expresses power and vulnerability without contradiction. With excellent diction, finely shaped tones and grand, theatrical gestures, his Dutchman in these performances is definitive.
As Senta, the Dutchman’s noble redemptrix, Miss Wilson, a Fairfax native, is his perfect counterpart. Beginning tentatively — perhaps intentionally as she breaks the jolly mood of Act II’s “Spinning Song” — Miss Wilson gathers the courage and conviction to embrace her fate and follow the Dutchman forever. She expresses this with a clear vocal intensity that foreshadows the power of Brunnhilde’s immolation scene at the Ring Cycle’s conclusion. Her high notes never fail, and her rich reserves of power seem inexhaustible.
In smaller roles, bass-baritone Gidon Saks is blustery and foolish yet oddly endearing as the Norwegian captain Daland, who’s more than happy to marry off daughter Senta to the ghostly Dutchman for a generous helping of the doomed sailor’s treasure. Tenor Ian Storey’s bold, impetuous voice is a bit much for the rather weak character of Erik, Senta’s spurned suitor, but fellow cast members deserve a worthy match here, and he provided it.
Mezzo Janice Meyerson is fine in her brief role as the priggish Mary. Tenor Andreas Conrad has fun with the humorous role of the Steersman, although his lyric tenor seems slightly out of place in an otherwise heavy-duty Wagnerian cast.
The orchestra was at its Romantic best for music director Heinz Fricke. Soundwise, however, the ensemble could have used more strings to balance the heft of Wagner’s intense brass writing — the primary fault, we suspect, of the Opera House’s still-too-small post-renovation orchestra pit.
Brickbats? One of the horns apparently had opening-night jitters, making more than a couple of questionable entrances. Also, the occasional, mysterious materialization of what seemed to be a plywood albatross wing appeared better suited to folding egg whites into angel-food cake batter than symbolizing divine redemption. Losing it would not harm this wonderful production.
WHO: The Washington National Opera
WHAT: Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” (“Der Fliegende Hollander”)
WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House