Rare Taste of Wagner’s Early Success Staged by Pittsburgh Opera in Brilliant Performance

The Briney Sea Tale of ‘The Flying Dutchman’ Appears to Be All That Pittsburgh Audiences Will Hear of Richard Wagner; the Gloom of the ‘Dutchman’ For the First Time in Two Decades

By George B. Parous

Last evening, Pittsburgh Opera gave its first performance of a Richard Wagner music-drama in twenty years. The work was, of course, Der fliegende Holländer, and it was an excellent performance indeed. But why not Tannhäuser? Lohengrin? Maybe one of the better known, stand alone “Ring” music-dramas, such as Die Walküre? Never heard locally in years and sure to pull in Wagnerian devotees from the tri-state area and/or beyond, any of these masterpieces, given with the right cast, conductor and director, notwithstanding financial and managerial trepidation, would thrill, and the novelty of any of Wagner’s works would test the Benedum’s seating capacity for all four performances. Or maybe cut the number of performances to three, making it easier for all, including the singers, orchestra and management. Instead, after large gaps in time, we’re thrown The Flying Dutchman, a work which certainly has its beauties, but as a demonstration of Wagner’s genius is far – very far – from his best. But it’s comparatively short, for Wagner, and people can get to the garages before their carriages return to pumpkins, so it’s the “Dutchman” we get, or nothing.

The Dutchman (Kyle Albertson)

The mob on hand last night proved the point that Wagner can draw an audience. Whether the performances remaining in the run will do the same remains to be seen. The production is loaded with vocal talent and has a first-class orchestra and dynamic conductor to swell or sing softly from below, never drowning the singers, but remaining a vividly pronounced part of the performance, as Wagner intended. From the opening page of the music-drama’s inspired overture, it was plain that Antony Walker and the orchestra had put a great deal of time into perfecting their interpretation of the magnificent score. From the most thunderous passages to the most haunting, tenderest of pianissimos, Walker kept the instrumentalists in the foreground, while the singers had the voices quite capable of riding the waves of majestic sound. Much the same may be said of the large chorus that Mark Trawka coached. It was a remarkable demonstration of ensemble singing, predominately male, as is frequently the case with Wagner, but equally impressive when the sopranos and mezzos dominated – beautifully – the opening of the second act. The large group of singers and supes were a joy for the ear and eye, but in spots seemed awkwardly placed in action and repose, possibly due to the design of the set.

That aspect is left largely to the imagination, as is usually the case with Wagner stagings here and abroad for the last eighty years or so. Projections serve as ships, doors in walls where doors shouldn’t be serve as exits/entrances, while the doomed lovers’ denouement comes almost as an anti-climax. But things could have been worse and frequently are, even at the Metropolitan Opera and at the famous Bayreuth Festivals devoted to Wagner’s music-dramas, where a notorious production, for instance, had the chorus of Lohengrin in white mice costumes. In this and others, crowds cheer the singers and vigorously boo the production personnel brave enough to appear on stage, but nothing changes. Following Wagner’s stage directions to the letter can be expensive, but it can be done, and if numerous critics can be believed, there was a time when it was, and anything less was called out. From Wagner’s lifetime until about World War II, brilliant ideas for set designs and directions are described in meticulous detail. And this has nothing to do with romanticizing a “golden age” of opera long gone, for the period most frequently referred to as “golden” never existed, as far as opera itself is concerned. There were (and are) periods in musical history and the present when unusually large groups of especially gifted singers and conductors bolster the box-office. It was only in the days prior to mass media when golden ages of the opera singers came and went, while critics, even in those ages, took exception to the makeshifts as described above. One needs only to put aside single-source books on the “Golden Age,” and spend time researching daily newspaper archives, to make the romanticized walls tumble. There are amazing opera singers in profusion today. Their every glamorous movement, however, doesn’t “make the papers,” as they did once upon a time.

Erik (Bryan Register) is upset that Senta’s (Marjorie Owens) mind is elsewhere (photographed at the Benedum Center in downtown Pittsburgh at the final dress rehearsal on November 9th)

Senta jumped ship before the curtain went up last evening. Soprano Marjorie Owens, long announced for the soprano role of Senta, was indisposed, and Alexandria Shiner took her place at the last possible moment. Ms. Shiner disappointed no one, as she has an exceptionally large, ringing “Wagnerian” voice, at its best and most evenly produced in forte passages. There were brief moments of uncertainty that can hardly be held against her, considering the fact that she was saving the day at the last minute, with very limited preparation time. Her voice is lustrous, and should Ms. Owens recover before the end of the run (which is expected), those who missed Ms. Shiner missed a real treat. UPDATE: It was, indeed, the soprano’s first time singing the role of Senta on any stage.

Steuermann (Daniel O’Hearn) keeps watch for Daland (Peter Volpe)

Bass-baritone Kyle Albertson, in his Pittsburgh Opera debut, made a colossal first impression. Commanding in presence and gifted with a voice that fits the role of the Dutchman like a glove, his wide range allows for effortless high tones, as well as powerful, resonant, clear and cavernous lows that ring out with apparent ease to the eye and a thrill to the ear. It took no effort whatsoever to imagine why Senta would be willing to sacrifice everything for this Dutchman, and it was easy to imagine a line behind her in the last moments of the music drama. Bass Peter Volpe, in the role of Daland, sang out with a powerfully robust voice as well, and in action allowed for the few moments of levity to be found in the otherwise gloomy text.

Tenor Bryan Register, in the part of Erik, strengthened the marvelous ensemble with his powerfully ringing voice, and vivid conception of the role. The man’s resume includes Wagner’s Tristan, and he lifted a usually secondary role to the level of the ensemble with his warm and virile tones. Leah Heater was good to hear again, and she made much of the small role of Mary. The part is one that is easily lost to the background, but her strong, sweet mezzo-soprano voice and charming stage presence brought the full potential of the role to rare prominence. Much the same may be said of tenor Daniel O’Hearn, in the role of the Steersman. Memory doesn’t recall a tenor who made as much of an impression in the part; one who made the role’s presence and songs anything other than uninteresting. Both singing actors are to be congratulated for what they bring to the production.

Mary (Leah Heater)

Altogether, and as it should be, the production meets Wagner’s fervent desire for a finely blended ensemble. Every singer, the chorus, the supes and the orchestra were united in making the performance “the thing,” and even those in the audience who were brand new to Wagner, from bits overheard in the foyers, took notice that what they just saw and heard was something totally different, totally new, from anything they’d ever before heard and seen in an opera performance. And they were absolutely right.

This is a production not to be missed. Remaining performances are on November 14th, 17th, and 19th. Tickets can be had at the box-office or ordered online at Pittsburgh Opera.

The Artistic Team for The Flying Dutchman –

Conductor, Antony Walker; Stage Director, Sam Helfrich; Set Designer, Steven Kemp; Projection Designer, Ian Wallace; Costume Designer, Nancy Leary; Lighting Designer, Derek Van Heel; Wig & Make-up Designer, James Geier; Stage Manager, Cindy Knight; Assistant Conductor, Glenn Lewis; Chorus Master, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist, James Lesniak; Assistant Stage Director, Haley Stamats; Assistant Stage Managers,  Laura Weston and Claire Young

David Bachman Photography for Pittsburgh Opera

Alexandria Shiner, soprano, who sang the role of Senta Saturday evening.

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