Vancouver Opera: March 2001

The Flying Dutchman

Venue: Queen Elizabeth Theatre

Date(s): 24,27, 29, & 31 March 2001

Reviewer: J. H. Stape

A Wagner no-gone zone for twenty-six years, the Vancouver Opera's foray into unfamiliar territory suggests that this is a company confidently on the move. This elegantly staged and beautifully sung performance of The Flying Dutchman richly makes amends for the unjust neglect of one of opera's essential composers. This Dutchman doesn't fly: it soars, going from strength to strength, from its eerie, tumultuous opening to its transcendent conclusion.

The flawlessly cast principal singers offer performances of singular depth and power, and the orchestra and augmented chorus under the baton of Maestro John Keenan unleash cascades of swirling sound, rivalling mighty Ocean itself, conjured up in the score, and reverberating in the mind's ear long after the curtain goes down. Simply put, this was an evening that defines the word 'grand' opera.

Bass-baritone Tom Fox's brooding, angst-ridden Dutchman is shot through with authority and intelligence. A commanding presence, Fox brings an intensity to this role that would alone make for a special evening. His opening spell-bindingly sung aria promised much, and never for a moment did his rich, darkly hued voice stint, registering, by turns, love, passion, and spiritual agony.

If these were not riches enough, the production features a superb Senta in Mary Jane Johnson, in lush and generous voice after a subdued entrance in her famous second act ballad. Conjuring up Nordic calm and Nordic passion with equal skill, her steely timbred soprano rose in waves, ably partnering the Dutchman that she obsessively longed for.

Stefan Szkafarowsky's Daland and John MacMaster's Erik were no less grandly conceived and authoritatively sung. MacMaster's huge, beautifully controlled tenor poured out desperate love, making Erik much more than a mere vocal foil--the pallid bourgeois alternative--to the Dutchman's cosmic pain. Philip Webb's Steersman was finely characterized and pleasantly sung. The only weak link in the six main roles was the Mary of Lucie Mayer, somewhat underpowered in the presence of these Titans.

The huge forces brought needed to produce the opera--the Dutchman himself commands the planets to cease in their rounds in his opening aria--includes an augmented chorus, with Chor Leoni doing yeoman service as the Dutchman's ghostly crew. Aside from a bit of ragged singing in the women's second act spinning song, the choral work was up to the high standard of choral singing in the city, one with a rich choral tradition.

The New Orleans Opera's handsome sets are "traditional" as is the direction by Roman Hurko. This, however, was no mindless traditionalism to appease a notoriously conservative audience but tradition that works, enhancing the score's dramatic values throughout. Stephen Ross's lighting effects should be given due credit as well in a production in which so many elements came together.

If there is a lesson here, it is that the Vancouver Opera, under James Wright's able direction, has what it takes to rise to the challenge. In a word, more Wagner--and not a generation hence, please!

The Flying Dutchman runs at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, at 8:00 pm sharp on 24, 27, 29, and 31 March. Tickets from $36.00 to $96.00 from all Ticketmaster outlets or by phone at (604) 280-3311. Rush tickets for students and seniors from $21.00 to $27.00 available one hour before curtain time on performance evenings at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Box Office.

© 2001, J. H. Stape

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