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S & H International Opera Review

Wagner: Der Fliegender Hollander, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor; Jane Eaglen, soprano; Jill Grove, mezzo soprano; Mark Baker, tenor; Mark Delavan, bass baritone; Stephen Milling, bass. Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, June 13, 2003 (HS)

 

Opera in the concert hall has several salutary effects. For one, it relieves stage directors of the temptation to gum up the works with looney ideas. It puts the emphasis squarely on the music, partly by placing the orchestra front and center. For Wagner's Der Fliegender Hollander, currently in a five-performance run at Davies Symphony Hall, the result is nothing short of spectacular. Heard in their second performance, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas pumped formidable energy into an orchestra at the top of its form, bass baritone Mark Delavan delivered a Dutchman of enormous depth, and soprano Jane Eaglen, despite some early wrestling matches with pitch, proved a Senta capable of riding over the whole storm thrillingly.

For these performances, billed as "a semi-staged concert," director Peter McClintock converted the back of the orchestra's stage to a raised platform large enough to allow the singers to move around on it. The terrace seats surrounding the stage were extended here and there with crow's nest outcroppings to stand in for Daland's ship and the pier. Large triangular sails stretched across some of the spaces, allowing for clean entries and exits for the singers and chorus and plain surfaces for lighting effects (and projected titles). The orchestra and singers wore simple black pajama-like clothing, rather than extensive costumes.

That was enough to bring the story to life. Wagner, after all, tells it all in the music, much of it in the orchestra, anyway. Thomas, like many big-time symphony conductors these days, doesn't take the extended time necessary to conduct in the opera house, but his theatrical sense works its way into his concerts often, and this was a chance to wallow in it. If he missed an occasional detail -- those spectral horn chords that signify the Dutchman's ghost ship in the scene with Daland's crew in Act III whizzed by without the conductor taking the time to savor the sonic effect, for one example -- the final minutes paid off with a sense of glorious inevitability as he built up the intensity to a stunning climax.

He had help from Delavan, whose vocal weight, impeccable musicianship and sense of dramatic purpose must place him among the very best in this role. The Dutchman's world-weariness and a dual sense of hope and despair was palpable in his Act I monologue, his anguish overpowering in the final scene, delivered with jaw-dropping gravitas from a crow's nest stage right.

Eaglen is a rare sort of Wagnerian soprano. Her voice lacks the metal ping and rock-hard backbone that characterizes most of them, but it has remarkable focus and enough volume to pierce through the densest orchestration, especially when she's singing above the staff. The voice is not exactly creamy, but it has a sort of softness around it. Maybe it's that texture that makes it seem just a hair off pitch sometimes -- a tad sharp on this note, a little flat on that one -- but it can be disconcerting, especially in the symphony hall. It was like that through her Act II ballad, when she recounts the tale of the Flying Dutchman she is about to meet, and through her scene with Erik the huntsman, her intended. Something clicked in the final scene as Delavan, Thomas and the orchestra ratcheted up the intensity, and she responded with better intonation and the sort of womanly singing that caught all kinds of subtle inflections even as the forte became fortissimo.

There's something ironic, perhaps even right, about Senta finally zoning in on that final scene, when she makes her noble sacrifice to redeem the Dutchman's life with her own.

On the way to that riveting final scene -- which drew an immediate standing ovation from a Davies Hall audience that seldom responds so enthusiastically -- there were fine moments to savor. The chorus, which, unlike an opera chorus, is unaccustomed to acting, made the most of its every opportunity. The women rolled up yarn as they spun out their spinning song, the men practically danced into their positions as they rollicked through their sea shanties, and raised hairs on the backs of a lot of necks with their ghost ship chorus/response in Act III, delivered from the very back of the balcony as the lighting suddenly went all red. Mezzo soprano Jill Grove played Mary as a sort of schoolmarm and kept the ball rolling while Eaglen homed in on her pitch and tenor Mark Baker brought a sense of heroic failure to Erik. As the Steersman, Eric Cutler was sweet-voiced if a bit underpowered.

Strongest of all the supporting cast was Stephen Milling, a bit wooly of voice but rock-solid in Daland's music, providing ideal counterpoint to Delavan's emotional bundle of a Dutchman.

These performances, which continue through June 21, are part of a German-inflected June festival the orchestra calls "Innocence Undone: Wagner, Weill and the Weimar Years," which also includes performances by chanteuse Ute Lemper of Weill's "Seven Deadly Sins" and a program of Wagner, Hindemith, Schoenberg and Toch songs featuring soprano Laura Claycomb.

Harvey Steiman

 

 


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