Monday, March 4, 2013

Lyric Opera "Flying Dutchman" review by kellyluck

Wagner's "Dutchman" sails into Kauffman Rating: 4

The Flying Dutchman
Lyric Opera of Kansas City

There seems a definite trend in the last year or so among those local troupes that call the Kauffman their performance home, a certain spreading of the wings, testing of new and ambitious waters. We see it in in the upcoming ballet season, and particularly in the Lyric Opera, who since their production of "Nixon In China" have really been pushing themselves creatively. More evidence of this was on display Saturday night as their new production of "The Flying Dutchman" premiered to a packed house. First performed in 1843, it is generally regarded as the moment where Wagner matured as a librettist and composer, and began to produce the spectacles of sound for which he is known to this day. The Lyric have taken this idea and run with it, and the results are impressive to say the least.

The story is a simple one, by opera standards: The Dutchmen (Richard Paul Fink, Bar.), cursed to sail the sea forever until he can find a woman who will love him all her life, finds himself along the coast of Norway. Every seven years, he has the chance to set foot on land, if only briefly, that he may find a suitable wife. Now as the time comes again, he hails a ship piloted by Captain Daland (Philip Cokorinos, Bass), and offers a portion of his vast treasure in exchange for lodgings for the night. When he finds out that Daland has a daughter of marriageable age, he becomes even more excited, and begs for her betrothal. Daland readily agrees, and they set sail for home.

Back in the village, Daland's daughter Senta (Melissa Citro, Sopr.) sings of the legend of the Dutchman, and laments his awful fate. For years she has grown up with a painting of the Dutchman in her house, and as a result has become somewhat obsessed with the story. It does not take her long to realize who her father's houseguest is, and she promptly breaks off her engagement with Erik (John Pickle, Ten.), a local hunter. Erik tries desperately to win Senta back, but only manages to convince the Dutchman she is unfaithful, and that he is without hope of release. Only by a last, desperate act can Senta convince the Dutchman of her intent, and release him from his curse forever.

This has been a season of taking risks, and this production was by no means an exception. Animations created by local firm Wide Awake Films provide a background (or rather, foreground) to the action on stage, most notably during the overture. Interesting and well-executed though these are, they do tend toward the monotonous after a while. The sets by R. Keith Brumley are very nicely done, allowing for a certain amount of flexibility, and of course Dutchman's ghost ship is a definite highlight, if somewhat truncated. An interesting bit of stage business was employed when the Dutchmen first arrives at Daland's house, in which he appears at first one doorway, then another, then another. One assumes this was an attempt to evoke the unworldliness of the doomed captain, but any such atmosphere was rather damaged by the all-too-audible sound of Mr. Fink running like blazes to get to his next mark. Speaking of, I must admit I was surprised by the use of a full-size portrait of the Dutchman in Daland's house where generally a small painting of the ship itself generally suffices, but in the end its purpose is made clear, and to great effect. Lighting and costumes were quite good, and an interesting fog effect was employed for the final act. A little off-putting, but not enough to detract from the performances.

Speaking of the performances, the singing was most exhilarating, with chorus and principals all in excellent voice. Ms Citro has an excellent Wagnerian soprano, and Fink's Dutchman is brooding and mysterious. This reviewer has always had a soft spot for jilted Erik, and Pickle's emotionally wrought characterization drove this even harder home than usual (it is another seeming trend this season that one is finding the secondary characters turning in particularly affecting performances). Suzanne Hendrix as Mary also turned in a fine, sympathetic performance.

A word or two, perhaps, about Wagner. One of the main pillars of modern opera, he has nonetheless not been performed in this city in twenty years. Part of this is down to the complexity of his works, which demand elaborate staging and production, but also to a growing understanding of Wagner as a person. Much has been written about his character: his temper, his racial attitudes, his financial, marital and other failings, and of course his influence on the dark days of Germany in the first half of the 20th century are by now notorious. Wagner, let's face it, was not the sort of man you'd want to spend time around. And yet, he nearly single-handedly redefined Opera as an art form. His music is amazing, his lyrics at turns touching, witty, and downright epic. His influence is felt in so many who came after him, not just in music but in all the arts. And yes, he has been appropriated in some places by the most vile of persons, but this does not, I believe, compromise the quality, the sheer beauty of his work. Besides, it is to my mind a disingenuous precedent to censure music on the basis of its creators' lives. Imagine if this were to hold true universally: whole branches of music would wither and die. Much beloved artists would disappear, taking their work with them. Genre after genre would fall, until all that was left was the vapid, the sanitized, the safe. Branson would be the music capital of the world. Frankly, that's not a world I want to live in.

These are exciting times for the opera lover in Kansas City. The Lyric is definitely stretching its wings, trying new ideas and sailing--pardon me--into uncharted territories. While it must be admitted their successes of late are not without flaws, nevertheless the things that work far outweigh the things that don't. With the excitement surrounding the recent announcement of the upcoming season, it is clear that this is a trend that will continue for some time. In this reviewer's opinion, that can only be a good thing.

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