Cliffhangers dominated the opening night of LA Opera’s The Flying Dutchman. First, there was the issue of the cliff itself. Wagner’s libretto describes Senta, at the finale, flinging herself into the sea to lift the curse from the ever-wandering sailor. At the Dresden premiere, the effect of her sacrifice was left up in the air. After a lukewarm reception, Wagner added an upbeat coda in which Senta and the Dutch sailor rise from the waves in an embrace. One watches contemporary productions wondering which ending will be used.
Then at curtain time, LA Opera President and CEO Christopher Koelsch announced that leading lady Elizabeth Matos was indisposed. The audience heard the news only 12 minutes after understudy Julie Makerov did. The major question of the evening became: Could the LA native rescue the night playing Senta the would-be savior? Some unsteadiness at the start, while understandable, left room for doubt.
Once begun, Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production, under the capable direction here of Daniel Dooner, raised a steady stream of further questions. In the first scene, Senta’s father Daland was dressed and coiffed like Frank Morgan as the palace guard in The Wizard of Oz. Tomas Tomasson’s nameless Dutchman, with a pale complexion, wide-brimmed black hat, and cloak seemed a figure out of a gothic horror film. Daland’s sailors looked like samurai. In this and subsequent scenes, each element of the vision compelled, but many clashed with the others. Would it all eventually cohere?
Throughout, one thing was never in doubt. The forceful discipline of James Conlon and the orchestra created wave after wave of sonic beauty. They provided churning motion without ever threatening to capsize the tenuous stillness that dominated the staging. Their lively delivery of Wagner’s limpid, liquid details counterbalanced the hazy remoteness of extended sequences behind scrims.
Most of the performers cut through the abstractions and obfuscations as well. Tomasson’s resonant baritone grounded his scenes even when shrouded in fog. Lehnhoff, set designer Raimund Bauer, and lighting designer Duane Schuler gave him an entrance for the ages, up center through large propeller blades. When stopped, the opening looked like the radiation warning sign, befitting a man whose curse has no half-life. Bass James Creswell, who resisted the temptation to make Daland a caricature, and lyrical tenor Matthew Plenk as The Steersman excelled through the piercing clarity of their voices.
As for the issues held in suspense, Makerov eventually steadied her feet on the raked stage where she had yet to rehearse. Her voice continued to open up as the evening progressed and she landed the upper notes in the final scene with the force of thunder. The blocking left her pretty much by her lonesome, facing out even when singing to others. Her Senta remained transfixed to the end by the sailor’s predicament and the possibility of saving him. Makerov and Tomasson succeeded, not through subtle shifts in intention and action but by committing to the monomania at the core of Lehnhoff’s vision.
The final image belonged to Senta, but there was no cliff. The action didn’t follow either of Wagner’s scenarios. Just as the scrim used in the first and last scene evoked both a tumultuously foaming sea and a turbulently cloudy sky, Senta was left somewhere in between, forever faithful.
While the varied elements of Lehnhoff’s production may have initially clashed and even seemed cursed, they ultimately coalesced. Like the fog-bound stage at the finale, intriguing images have continued to waft through the mind long after the final notes disappeared into the ether.
The Flying Dutchman runs in repertory with Rossini’s Cinderella through March 30 at LA Opera, 135 N. Grand Ave, LA, CA 90012.