On Saturday November 4th, the Atlanta Opera opened its 38th season by unveiling a new production of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman”. “The Flying Dutchman,” or “Der Fliegende Hollander,” is the only Wagnerian work that the Atlanta Opera has staged in its thirty eight year history, and as we walked out of the auditorium following Friday night’s performance, your friends at newoutpost could not contain the flood of thoughts that we humbly offer here as the introduction to our write up.
We want to frame what follows by proclaiming that, as residents of this city for the past twenty seven years, we consider the Atlanta Opera our home, and we want to see it grow into the fantastic arts institution we know it can become. This is Atlanta’s third stab at producing Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” in the past 15 years, and already the feeling of dread that the company is unlikely to dig deeper into the Wagnerian repertoire has already begun to set in. Be it due to economic constraints, the operas duration, union restrictions, or whatever the case may be, it is a sad fact that many bets would be lost if the Atlanta Opera were to suddenly stage any other selection from the great composer’s canon. Many quietly fear that the pattern of the past twelve years, the recycling of the standard repertoire sprinkled with odd excursions into esoteric operas to somehow claim variety will continue, and a recent visit to another regional company underlined the impression as being shared by more than just locals. In conversation with a rather cheeky member of the administrative staff who, upon learning our city of origin, smirked and said “Atlanta? I hear they do a lot of Don Giovannis there!” we realized that there was enough truth in the statement to make the burn sizzle.
Under the leadership of William Fred Scott, the company made a sometimes painfully slow journey through the bulk of the standard repertoire for a period of nineteen years. Your friends at newoutpost personally sat through a large portion of this, and plenty of summer gig and babysitting moneys were sacrificed to delight in the Atlanta Opera’s survey of the standard Mozartian repertoire, the obvious middle Verdi canon, the four Puccini favorites that we won’t bother to list out. Mingled between these were some honest attempts to beef up the city’s operatic lexicon with less obvious works such as Bellini’s “Norma” and “I Capuleti ed i Montecchi,” early Verdi was represented by “Nabucco,” and “Macbeth,” and Atlanta learned that verismo did not start and stop with Puccini, but there were other composers such as Mascagni, Leoncavallo and Giordano that also had fantastic points of view of D’Annuzio’s Italy. There was even a nasty rumor that the Donizetti Tutor queens trilogy was in the works, yet this sadly did not come to pass. For the centennial of Giuseppe Verdi’s death in 2001, the Atlanta Opera somehow failed to make news in being one of the few companies in the United States to stage a full Verdi season, which featured the brawny lineup of “Un Ballo in Maschera,” “Falstaff,” “Otello” and “Il Trovatore.” Subsequent seasons would broaden the Germanic repertoire, and by the time William Fred Scott’s tenure had come to a close, the company had presented its first production of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman,” Strauss’ “Salome” and Beethoven’s “Fidelio.”
During the Dennis Hanthorne era, “Dutchman” reappeared as well as Humperdinck’s charming “Hansel und Gretel”, giving hint that perhaps he was ready to propel the company towards the Rheinland at a more frenetic pace. But this did not occur, and save for some bold excursions into unexpected repertoire (Floyd’s “Cold Sassy Tree” and Glass’ “Akhnaten”) the core repertoire remained either stagnant or was for the most part recycled. Was this a function of the big recession? We are not among those in the know. And yet we arrive at this current production, presented under the direction of the company’s current General and Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun (now on his fifth season with the company) and the ante is rather high profiled on paper. This production saw its birth in our city and was done in collaboration with Cincinnati Opera and Houston Grand Opera. The company has also managed to rise past its economic difficulties and can now boast a season that offers five productions. But the core programing veers to the standard pieces and light distractions. Will this once again be the extent of our progress in terms of the standard repertoire? We sure hope not. We hope with all our hearts that the powers that be will realize that the Atlanta audience has always been opera hungry and will follow the company wherever it goes. The audience is ready. It was ready during the legendary MET tours, when it had to squeeze its numbers into the Woodruff Arts center and when it struggled to hear a thing at the Civic Center. This audience is ready for Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” Verdi’s “Ernani,” Donizetti’s “Poliuto,” and Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito.” This audience is ready for Strauss’ “Elektra” and Barber’s “Vanessa.” This audience is ready for Rossini’s “Semiramide,” Meyerbeer’s “Le Prophete,” and we are even willing to wager that if this audience is given more Wagner, they may just put a RING on it. So if anyone is listening, let’s not wait until the Dutchman’s ship returns seven years from now: Please expand the company’s standard core repertoire as soon as humanly possible.
This new production of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” featured sets and costumes by designed by Jacob A. Climer. The main scenic feature, comprised of a massive semi circular parapet, was present in each of the opera’s three acts, and served the proceedings best when depicting the interior of Daland’s house (or in this case, Daland’s communist proletariat factory) and less successfully in its depiction of the Norwegian coast. This last limitation had a particular dire effect in the final act, where the otherwise surefire dramatic effect of Senta’s sacrifice was resolved in the most unsatisfactory of ways. The overall production values are serviceable but neither break new ground nor further the cause of updating opera to make it more relevant to today’s audiences. The projection work of designer S. Katy Tucker, depicting ghostly apparitions and underlining the natural forces already well established by the orchestra registered as unnecessary distractions, though the projections depicting the entrances of the Dutchman’s ship in Acts One and Three were admittedly inspired and achieved without the excess that can often hampers the projection element in opera productions today. At the pit, Carl & Sally Gable Music Director Arthur Fagen held the music together, even if he required sometime to warm his way into the evening. After a slow and tentative overture he found his verve and led a cohesive (if not terribly inspired) reading of the daunting score, which proved a great achievement in itself considering the disparate qualities of his principal singers.
Introducing himself to Atlanta Opera audiences in the opera’s title role, bass-baritone Wayne Tigges did not have a flattering debut. Much the case as our previous hearing of his Assur in Rossini’s “Semiramide” two seasons ago at Washington Concert Opera, the artist’s search for the appropriate repertoire continues, and sadly his is not the voice for the Dutchman. The complexity of his opening scene (“Die Frist ist um…Wie oft in Meeres tiefsten Schlund,”) with its dynamic declamatory jolts, denied him any room to establish his instrument in a comfortable footing, and revealed an overall throaty, underpowered declamation that threatened to go leathery in the lower staff. As the duration of the first act progressed, the whole of his instrument failed to gather vitality in the extremes of his scale, and much like a rubber band being pulled to the extremes, the middle became stressed. The overall effect left much of his difficult role unrealized, and despite his best efforts he seemed to land somewhere between non-offensive and somewhat functional, a sort of vocal no man’s land. His stage deportment was more consistent, and while he did not break any new interpretive ground, he moved through the paces of the part with a brooding, natural intensity. In art, as in with most things, it’s always better to be something (even outright bad) than a non-entity, thus we regret to report him as the biggest casualty of the night. We wish to hear him again in the future in repertoire better suited to his resources.
These performances of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” allowed the Atlanta Opera audience to reassess the Erik of tenor Jay Hunter Morris, who performed the same role in the company’s second staging of the opera back in 2009. Memories of that evening recall a robust heldentenor with a piercing edge, even then overtly forward and almost nasal in quality. Many will remember how two years following those performances, he would be entrusted with the heroic role of Wagner’s Siegfried’s at the Metropolitan Opera and broadcast across the globe via Live HD. For all intents and purposes, he had hit the big time. Still, all conscientious artists (and we believe him to be one) know that what truly counts is their ability to express and interpret, and as heard this past friday, some of our original misgivings of Mr. Morris’ technique are now revealed to have been valid, and it’s a real shame as he has all the ingredients necessary to bring the great Wagner heroes to life. He is a tall, good-looking man, of noble features and piercing light-colored eyes. His instrument is of a mammoth dimension, and when wielded properly it can cut right through the orchestra with the edge of a blazing sword. But, whereas Mr Tiggs seemed at a vocal no man’s land, Mr. Morris’s instrument painted him into a very definite corner, and as heard this past Friday his voluminous tenor is no longer willing to respond to his technical know how.
Throughout the performance, he exhibited vocalism that can only be described as extraordinarily uneven. His voice, it would seem, can only be unleashed at full volume, and the consistency of his scale at any given moment could turn white, arid or even disappear in the most unpredictable moments. If an aural picture can be conveyed, think of a blinding light projecting behind the trees as you drive by a forest at night. This affected each instance where the score required a supple melodic line to be held, in particular his final offering, “Willst jenes Tag’s du nicht,” in the opera’s third act. The voice has in essence hardened, and could not be called upon to bend in any acceptable way. To his great credit, Mr. Morris remains a creative artist, and used his compromised resources to build a character all the same. During passages requiring lacrymose declamation, such as in his retelling of the vision in his dream (“Auf hohem Felsen lag’ ich träumend,”) he managed to weave snarls, grunts and whispers into an extraordinarily poignant realization of Erik’s defitist paranoia. Thus Mr. Morris remains, and despite his current state of vocal affairs, we hope that he will take the necessary measures to reassess his technique and one day convince this company to utilize his extraordinary talents in more ambitious Wagnerian assignments.
Like Mr Morris, the casting of Melody Moore as Senta afforded Atlanta Opera audiences the chance to hear the development of a singer previously heard in our city. That was back in 2012 when Ms. Moore introduced herself to the Atlanta Opera audience as Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a debut that your friends at newoutpost welcomed with marked reservations. At her entrance, the zany disposition of her Senta (as envisioned by director Tomer Zvulun) raised an alarm, and the gulf between this hyperactive presentation and the detached, mysterious figure spelled out in the score was never truly bridged by the time the final curtain was lowered. Suffice it to say, it was a great thing that singer who showed up last Friday was a completely different singer than the one who struggled to showcase her instrument in Mozart’s delicious yet merciless score five years ago. Through Senta, Ms. Moore unleashed the type of seamless and effortless vocalism that would award her the highest praise of the night. The instrument has grown into the lyrico spinto territory, central in placement, with a molten core that opens excitingly in the middle, lower and upper middle registers by way of a plush, slightly covered production. When projected across the auditorium it shimmered with a glamorous glow, and conquered the orchestral fabric with surprising efficiency. Her accomplishment was doubly underlined when taking into account the difficulties of her part.
Lying somewhere between Leonore in Beethoven’s “Fidelio” and Wagner’s own Sieglinde (and may we suggest a dash of Elisabetta in Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux”) Senta offers vocal and histrionic challenges quite unique in the Wagnerian lexicon. This romantic and somewhat abnormal young lady is first introduced by way her famous and difficult “Johohoe! Johohohoe! Traft ihr das Schiff im Meere an, blutrot die Segel, schwarz der Mast?” The scene is replete with moments of lyricism juxtaposed against lines of passionate exaltation, and will challenge even the most seasoned of Wagnerians (Birgit Nilsson and Germaine Lubin, for instance, always stayed clear of the part). Ms. Moore showed herself up to the challenge, and husbanded her resources without seeming to do so when managing the relentless crescendos of the ballad without overcoming to exhaustion. The voice also retained its beautiful and vibrant glow during the difficult duet with the Dutchman (“Wie aus der Ferne,”) and opened up to an exciting degree up to the exposed climax, where only the upper most tessitura seem to lose a noticeable degree of intensity. This tiny caveat would resurface during the final outburst that closes the opera, and add up to two musical reservations in an otherwise faultless impersonation.
The supporting roles were happily realized, with Kirstinn Sigmundsson’s round and cavernous bass making for luxury casting in the pivotal role of Daland. This is Mr. Sigmundsson’s Atlanta Opera debut, and we hope he will become a regular visitor to our city. For the important role of the young Steuermann, the Atlanta Opera chose to showcase a developing artist, and entrusted tenor Justin Stolz, a member of its studio, with the part. Mr. Stolz displayed a study, clear tenor of great promise, though his interpretation veered towards utility and less as an interpretation of a starry eyed young man singing a plain, sweet chant. With time and experience, we trust the inspiration will come. For her part, mezzo-soprano Olivia Vote was a big voiced, serviceable Mary.
Under the leadership of chorus master Rolando Salazar, the Atlanta Opera Chorus continues a tradition of excellence throughout its ranks. But it would be a lie to ignore the fact that, both by design and practice, it was a night for the men of the Atlanta Opera Chorus to shine. The truth is that they took full advantage of the chance and completely edged their female counterparts (who were as excellent as ever, mind you) during the opera’s third act opening sequence. The chance for payback will surely come later in the season when the company stages Bizet’s “Carmen.” What can we say? We’re pulling for the ladies, and their sweet, smoky revenge.
The Atlanta Opera follows Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman with performances of Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment” this coming February. For more information, please visit the company’s website at: www.atlantaopera.org