WAGNER’S FIRST MASTERPIECE?

DUTCHMAN ADRIFT: Lyric Opera embarks, finally, on mythical Wagnerian journey

If you really want to know who Richard Wagner is, The Flying Dutchman is a good place to start. For not only is this the first opera in which the composer began to experiment with the revolutionary musico-dramatic ideas that would later transform opera as we know it, but it is also a German opera of its time, with gorgeous Italianate arias and duets that sound like they could come from Bellini or Verdi – or indeed from some of Wagner’s German or French contemporaries. But to say thatDutchman is poised on the brink of something bigger is to diminish its intrinsic qualities, and that’s why the Lyric Opera decided to embrace the opera’s full Romantic character in the new production that opens on March 2nd at the Kauffman Center. “For me this is the first major work where he first starts to sound like himself, like the Wagner that we know from everything that came later,” says Lyric artistic director Ward Holmquist, who will conduct the four performances. But he adds that it’s important to accept the piece for what it is – a Romantic-era German opera from the early 1840s – and not be waiting around for “the fat lady to sing,” to cop a phrase inspired by Wagner’s later works, especially The Ring of the Nibelung.

“The fat lady singing and the horns and the breastplates – that’s something that, for me, is so much more off-putting for people, in fact it’s a way that people make fun of this art form.”

The Lyric has dreamed of bringing Dutchman back into its repertoire for years – the last production was nearly 40 years ago – but two previous attempts faltered for lack of funds. Ward says that when he began talking with director Bernard Uzan, who has worked with the Lyric several times, he knew he’d found a vision for the opera that jibed with his own. “In my mind we wanted it very much to be Romantically conceived, in the true spirit of the original, so when I talked to Bernard, that was the thing that I was so excited about. He already had ideas about the visual images.” Among the images that inspired Bernard, and subsequently R. Keith Brumley’s andKeith Johnson’s scenic designs, were stormy maritime illustrations that Gustave Doré had created for an 1876 edition of Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. “We were at Bernard’s apartment in New York and he started showing me these things,” Ward says, “and I said, ‘That’s how the piece feels. That’s how the music feels.’ ”

The story of the Dutchman – who is doomed to travel the seas in search of the eternal love of one special woman – is based partly in mythology and literature. Yet a central tenet to directing the opera is to treat the title character as a human being, Bernard says. True, the poor devil has wandered for some 300 years, and can set anchor only every seven years. But “he is a real person,” Bernard says. “If he’s not real, we will not understand him fully. We need to love him, hate him, see him as human.” The Dutchman is ultimately a pitiable creature, a man driven by desperation, says world-renowned baritone Richard Paul Fink, for whom the Dutchman is a signature role. “The eternal hope has to be there, so that no matter what is said I have this hope that this may be the one.” Every seven years the ocean “tosses” the cursed Dutchman onto land to continue his quest, and it’s not a pleasant life, he says. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, boy! I get to look for another girlfriend!’ It’s more, ‘Oh, here we go again …’ ”

When the (unnamed) Dutchman lands on the Norwegian coast and is welcomed into the home of Daland (baritone Philip Cokorinos,in his Lyric debut), he seems to sense that something is different. Sure enough Daland’s daughter, the lovely Senta, has dreamed of the Dutchman’s arrival nearly all her life: For not only is his story the stuff of legend and song, but his portrait has hung in Daland’s house for generations. True, the Dutchman has told his sad story many times through the centuries, but this time it seems to find resonance. “Maybe the other girlfriends were not so moved by the story as she is,” says soprano Melissa Citro, who is singing Senta for the first time. “She is genuinely moved by his plight. … And instead of having to sell some girl on the idea (of redeeming him by pledging undying love), maybe this time he comes in and she’s been waiting for him. So that must be refreshing.”

Keith Brumley, director of design and technical production, is leading a team that has created a whole new physical production forDutchman, with a fixed central deck that serves as ship deck, house and dockside, depending on appendages on either side or upstage. “It’s actually kind of in a classic scene-design style,” he says, “where you just sort of put it out there for people to look at.” But there will also be stormy seas, he says, courtesy of digital animations by Keith Johnson of Wide Awake Films. “They are tempest-tossed,” Keith says of the opening of Act 1, in which the sailors are thrown back and forth across the deck. Yes the sea is purely computer-generated, but it looks just like water. “There’s spray and the ship rides on waves … and it comes up on the waves, and the waves splatter away.”

Waves are also a good metaphor for how to sing Wagner, Richard says – in order to negotiate the “welling-up” of big orchestral sound. “No matter if you swim with the current or against it, you’re going to get swamped under. The more you can body-surf, the more you can ride the wave, let the wave push you along … the more you will feel that energy and strength under you. You have to let that buoy you up and just carry you along. … Otherwise it’s going to take you right down.” But there is plenty of lighter singing inDutchman tooas John Pickle (who sings the role of Senta’s suitor, Erik) can attest. Wagner here is “more legato, more bel canto, more like Verdi and Puccini,” he says. “I just came here from singing Verdi, and I have to bring more of that to this.” Melissa concurs. “If you close your eyes for a few measures, you can feel like you’re in a completely different, non-Wagnerian world.”

The Flying Dutchman runs March 2nd through the 10th in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre. For tickets and more information call 816-471-7344 or go to kcopera.org.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net