Cher Public

Gewitter und Sturm

The wild tempest that whipped and drenched the audience as it exited the Met after Tuesday’s season premiere of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer mirrored the finer features of the evening: Michael Volle’s anguished Dutchman and Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s lithe and fiery conducting. 

Nearly thirty years old, August Everding’s resolutely static, no-idea production returned for its final run after an absence of seven years. As revived by Stephen Pickover, this work about a haunted voyager cursed to endlessly sail the seas proved disappointingly stand-and-deliver. The great Senta-Dutchman duet had both characters facing forward on opposite sides of the stage stock-still for fifteen minutes—ugh!

Hans Schavernoch’s looming monochromatic sets were again mostly effective although I’m still baffled (as I was first in 1992) why the Dutchman delivers his wrenching monologue from his ship’s gangplank as it stands scarily suspended in mid-air. The sole interesting note in Lore Haas’s stolidly traditional costumes might be the grand black cape which envelops the Dutchman bringing to mind apt vampiric associations which, of course, the production doesn’t explore.

I hadn’t been impressed by his Mandryka during his Met debut season several years ago, but Volle’s subsequent Hans Sachs was endearing and warmly sung. In the Strauss role his top register was often strained but his powerful Dutchman rang out securely there although occasionally his softer singing lost focus.

This was a particularly angry and bitter wanderer and one sometimes wished for a bit more warmth in his portrayal which might help make Senta’s obsession less overtly masochistic. But his fierce concentration and enviable stamina impressed galvanizing the evening.

As the Norwegian maid inexorably drawn to a legend rather than a flesh-and-blood suitor, Amber Wagner was often thrilling—and often frustrating. Her big glowing soprano filled the large house effortlessly, the high notes gratifyingly secure.

And yet all too often it seemed as if she was content to just pump out her glowing sound—little was done to delineate Senta’s boredom with village life which leads to her all-consuming passion for the figure in the portrait. She didn’t vary the verses of her well-sung ballad, and the character’s volatile mania come across with little intensity.

One can imagine her making a greater impact with a more placid character like Ariadne rather than the dramatically unstinting Senta. In both her strengths and weaknesses, Wagner often reminded me of the young Deborah Voigt.

Franz-Josef Selig’s hearty, jovial Daland perhaps gave short shrift to the character’s conniving and venal nature. His big resonant bass too often wobbled and lost focus much as his Met Sarastro had in 1998. The deluxe casting of veteran Dolora Zajick didn’t entirely come off as much of the role lies uncomfortably low for her but she still created a frighteningly strict Mary who easily dominated the first part of the second act during which the village girls sew rather than spin.

Initially Ben Bliss’s Steersman sounded underpowered but he quickly righted himself and delivered his plaintive song with lieder-like finesse. AJ Glueckert had replaced Jay Hunter Morris as Erik late in the rehearsal process. Making his Met debut in less than ideal circumstance, he acquitted himself well enlivening a bland and ineffectual character with an appealingly plaintive tenor. Occasional strain made one wonder though if he should be performing dramatic roles as Bacchus and Don José at this point in his career.

Usually this late in the long Met season one has to make allowances for an exhausted chorus and orchestra, but both were in fine form Tuesday, especially the thunderous male chorus whose lusty sailors were highlights of both the first and third acts. However, the wrong-headed decision to have the Dutchman’s crew sing offstage through muffled amplification considerably lessened the impact of that chilling scene.

This Holländer was Nézet-Séguin’s first appearance at the Met since his appointment as its new Music Director, and he was greeted at the beginning with a huge ovation from the audience and at his solo curtain call with an astonishing volley of red and yellow roses from the pit, a gesture that clearly surprised and moved him. His wonderfully kinetic conducting style was so interesting to watch that one was happily distracted from the sometimes uninteresting stage action.

Although there were some occasional clunkers from the brass, his clearly energized band otherwise vibrantly responded to his brisk nuanced reading in which all the varied orchestral voices arose from the pit with admirable clarity. Although the long difficult central duet sometimes lost tension, the infectious choruses at the beginning of the third act had tremendous swing and the glorious apotheosis at the end bloomed wonderfully.

Just four more performances remain this season including Saturday’s broadcast, but one hopes that the new Music Director will continue to refine his dynamic conception of Holländer when a rumored and much needed new production by François Girard arrives in 2019-20.

Before then, another chance to experience Nézet-Séguin’s Wagner (albeit with a work at the opposite end of the composer’s career) occurs next season when he conducts a revival of the Girard Parsifal in February.

A much different Wagner work arrives tomorrow on “Trove Thursday” but in the meantime a Holländer with the luminous Johanna Meier as Senta can be found here.

Photo: Richard Termine

  • Rowna Sutin

    Thank you, Mr. Corwin for your first hand account of the performance. I, like so many others, listened from a portable device at home. It is always difficult to tell exactly how things are going, so we all count on folks like you to give an honest assessment. Re the wobble of Daland, it sounded pretty strong at home. I sometimes think there is something wrong with me because so many prominent roles are filled with singers who don’t have their vibrato under control So maybe it is a size thing. Re Ms. Wagner: I didn’t miss that there wasn’t a complete realization of her character -- her singing was all out thrilling. This is a great voice. And I also found it very beautiful -- not always a given. I get to hear this “live” on Saturday. The Met never does enough Wagner IMHO.

    • southerndoc1

      “So maybe it is a size thing”

      I’ve said so myself many times.

    • So from now on, never enough Wagner in Wagner for you, Rowna.

      • Rowna Sutin

        I eagerly await more Wagner from A Wagner. She would be luxury as Elsa! I see that she has Brangaene in her rep. Should she sing that, Isolde should be very afraid.

  • La Cieca

    Our Own JJ: “Nézet-Séguin deserved every decibel of acclaim and then some. In this setting of the gothic tale of the cursed Flying Dutchman and his zombie ship’s crew, more than two hours of intermissionless bombast and lyricism seemed to fly without pausing for breath. The momentum was irresistible.”

    Rousing ‘Dutchman’ at the Met Is Enough to Wake the Undead

  • Might the Duchman’s seemingly precarious position on that suspended gangplank (I assume the Met’s rigging makes it actually secure) not be symbolic of his alienated situation: “suspended” between land and sea, heaven and hell, love and bitter loneliness?

    • Antikitschychick

      I agree with the reviewer that it looked really scary because the angle of the gangplank is pretty steep. At first I couldn’t believe someone was actually going to climb up and down that thing and then lo and behold, Volle appeared and sang his first monologue from beginning to end on it.

  • Antikitschychick

    Great review; thank you Christopher. I agree with most of what you say, especially your critique of the supporting cast of singers and the production. I had never seen it before nor had I heard the legendary Dutchmans you mentioned so I really took this in with a clean slate, which allowed me to appreciate the performance on its own terms/merits more since I wasn’t making comparisons in my head.

    I’m sorry that you found A Wagner frustrating. I thought given how static the production is (and yes I completely agree that her and Volle stand at least 10 feet away from each other and facing the audience instead of each other during the duet was completely inappropriate) she was pretty great. I really do hope we hear more of her and soon. Most of the reviews are positive, except for one from the Financial Times. I haven’t come across an NYT review yet though there was a think piece written before the premiere that discussed the opera’s themes, and had commentary about how might the characters, especially Senta seem relatable to a contemporary audience, which I did find interesting. I thought the way in which Wagner portrayed Senta was effective and I’m glad that what I saw reflected the comments she made about her approach to her portrayal. Too often singers make claims about a certain interpretation of a role which is never reflected in the actual performance(s) and I’m glad that wasn’t the case here.

    I also think that even though the character of Senta lacks the layers that other Wagner heroines have, I thought her singular, almost stubborn resoluteness on saving/redeeming the Dutchman was admirable because, to Wagner’s credit it really did seem like it was her choice and she was relishing in it, so she appears to have at least some agency and control. The commentary in the article from Dan Savage about women thinking they “are magic” and “have magic vaginas” and that those ‘assets’ are what they think makes their love transformative was imho a vulgar and inapposite simplification of the Wagnerian theme of “(female) self-sacrifice as an atonement for another’s guilt”. I don’t think that should have been included. The final commentary from the musicologist I did find interesting though.

    Here are links to the NYT piece and other reviews:

    • Liz.S

      I was rolling my eyes reading Mr. Bernheimer’s low opinions earlier (2 stars? Come on! :-) -- relieved to find JJ’s enthusiastic review.
      What Christopher meant by frustration may not be so negative -- I had similar feelings previously. To me she did seem performing OK but in some kind of mold or within the boundaries of satisfying certain level of expectations before -- but at the same time you could see she’s very gifted and has potential to go easily way beyond.
      The first time I was so excited to see her broke out of that mold so to say was BSO’s Ariadne webcast. Last night on the radio I thought she finally proved who she is at the Met. I see the reviews are mixed but I’m so looking forward to hear her live this time around. She is a marvelous singer and may this success and our enthusiasm open more doors for her. Yes, I want more of her at the Met, too! :-)

      • Antikitschychick

        Just seeing this comment now so apologies for the delayed response. Yes that Financial Times review was such a downer! Thanks for pointing out that the whole ‘frustration’ thing might not actually be bad. I hand’t thought of it that way but I think you may be right. No doubt she has major potential. We shall see what happens after this. I’m just surprised it took this long for her to get a leading role at the Met, especially if she’s been singing this well and also considering how unique her instrument is.

        I liked the performance so much I bought a ticket to see it again on May 12th (after my finals). Can’t wait! It’ll be a different experience since I’ll be up in family circle and it’ll also be the last performance of the run so hopefully that will bring even more excitement (sans the possibility of fatigue).

      • The Dybbuk

        Isn’t Mr Bernheimer old enough to have seen every performance of every opera since the turn of the 19th century? I suppose one just gets so jaded at having to be being pithily condescending about the umpteenth version of the zillionth production you have seen since the premiere.

        • Liz.S

          I’ve heard that too -- he’s been around forever! :-) I imagine he’s like some kind of Emilia Marty figure.
          Our opinions don’t always match but overall I like reading his reviews, which is full of personality

        • Camille

          He was that way in 1965, when I first started reading him.

          Actually, he’s probably lightened up and mellowed out somewhat compared to his youthful self.

          He has his biases and his angles but is a sharp fellow and it’s rather hard to slide schite easily by him most of the time.

          I usually ingest Bernie’s opinion with a large grain of sel de mer. Helps it go down smoothly.

    • Magpie

      Anti…. Let Savage say whatever he wants, mostly he seems to tackle issues with the perspective of a teenager. Wait till he dies and finds out that God is woman…..

  • La Cieca
  • Porgy Amor

    This and the old Erwartung/Bluebeard double bill, both new in 1989, were designer Schavernoch’s only Met work. He is still active in his seventies; I should not rule anything out.

    He has been Harry Kupfer’s regular set designer since the 1980s, so their names are linked in my mind. Collaborations included the fondly recalled Bayreuth Ring, Vienna State Opera Elektra, and Berlin Parsifal, all filmed.

    Their Rosenkavalier at Salzburg/La Scala, recently covered in the piece here on videos of that opera, is lovely, and quite different from their dark ‘n’ stark classics above. I have not seen the Meistersinger, but I’ve read good notices for it. (Hey, maybe that would be a good pickup to solve the Met’s Meistersinger problem. Still bummed we’re not getting Herheim’s.)

    Oh, not to forget — great review, Christopher.

  • Juicy Bjoerling

    i was there last night as well and thought it was one of the most exciting evenings of the season. was i the only one that thought amber sounds a lot like a young jessye? the voice is large, opulent, a bit covered and dark….

    • Olivero Fan

      But with a much easier and blooming top than Jessye.

  • Camille

    One question: does Senta still wear that fugly black wig? Hope not.

    • Olivero Fan


      • Camille

        Oh good. Thanks OF.

  • Antikitschychick

    The NYT declared it; a star is born: “And the American soprano Amber Wagner, in her first appearance at the house in more than four years, gave a star-making performance as Senta, a strange young woman obsessed with the legend of the Dutchman and convinced that she can be his redeemer. Ms. Wagner took some time to warm up, and occasionally she seemed overly calculated in her singing. But her powerful, gleaming and richly expressive voice was ideal for the music. And in her most fraught, intense moments she was extraordinary.”

    I am so happy for her! This is well-deserved and I just knew they had to say it haha.

  • Rowna Sutin

    Any Parterrian going to the Saturday matinee, please find me before the opera to say hi. Row P Orchestra 23 and 25. Mr. Opera will be there too.

  • LittleMasterMiles

    Do we know anything more about Jay Hunter Morris’s withdrawal? The Times said it was for “personal reasons.” Is he OK?

    • Juicy Bjoerling

      not to be mean, but i was glad to hear he cancelled. JHM has always disappointed me, i saw his siegfried and his debut as steva. on another note, ben bliss — i first heard him on a CD of the LA dFH, with an astounding matos, and i was very impressed — and he did not disappoint on tuesday.

      • Camille

        Pardon me, but—

        You say “an astounding Matos”—now, that is just music to my ears as I think so well of her after the Fanciulla.

        Was she really that good, as I think this role would be in the best part of her voice and can understand what you mean by that. I thought a lot about going out to see that Production as I was so interested, but ultimately did not go.

        Very pleased to hear this. Thanks.

        • Juicy Bjoerling

          miss camille, i wasn’t there either but i have the CDs of her sentas from LA and naples from 2013, and yes, it does fit her voice quite well. as a matter of fact, she has a much better top notes than amber wagner did on tuesday, a very brilliant and loud top, quite exciting. she just sang her first ortruds in berlin and is now singing isolde in lisbon.

          • Camille

            Yes, a VERY brilliant and loud top fifth of the voice--it was fairly amazing how the voice changed as it went up in altitude.

            I’m very happy she is singing still and hope she will be back here someday. One never, ever knows.

      • Juicy Bjoerling

        well, i mistook my tenors… ben bliss was not the steersman at the LA hollander… it was matthew plenk. not sure why i thought it was bliss…

  • chicagoing

    Amber Wagner was a member of the Ryan Opera Center here during the time I first began attending performances at LOC, and even though they have brought her back and featured her in at least three starring roles since then I am struggling to recall seeing her onstage during her internship. There was a Kate Pinkerton and… not much else.

    • Cameron Kelsall

      To my knowledge, Wagner only sang a few comprimaria roles during her time at Ryan--Kate Pinkerton, Feklusa in Kat’a, one of the unborns in Frau--and covered some leading roles. I believe her Elsa circa 2010 was her first leading engagement with the company and came after she’d graduated from their program.

      • Antikitschychick

        That is such a travesty. I’m sure she was ready for more than that after she won the council auditions. Hopefully this actually means something and she’ll get cast in more Wagner at the top houses. I read in that operawire interview she also wants to sing Aida and Turandot. Looking forward to hearing those too.

        • Cameron Kelsall

          I don’t think I would call it a travesty--young artists programs aren’t really the time for singing lead roles. LOC has certainly been good to Wagner over the past few years, when she’s returned to sing Elsa, Ariadne, Elisabeth (Tannhauser), and Leonora (Trovatore), and she’s coming back next season for (her first?) Turandot.

          • Antikitschychick

            And its really great that her time there paid off, I just think ten years is a long time to get a leading role at the Met considering she won their council auditions, but we all know that for some singers it takes longer than others.

            • Cameron Kelsall

              And there are many council winners who never sing a single performance at the Met. Careers are a funny thing and hard to predict from the outset.