Opera News Review of Opera Maine’s Der Fliegende Holländer

OPERA MAINE was founded in 1995, but it was only in 2019 that the company announced its first Wagner production, Der Fliegende Holländer, to be presented in the summer of 2020. But then along came Covid, and the 2020 season was scuttled. When the company returned, last year, it decided that something lighter was in order, so Holländer was shelved in favor of an amusingly updated production of L’Elisir d’Amore. But Opera Maine’s desire to leap into Wagner could not be restrained indefinitely, so this year—though Covid is still with us, and masks were required—Fliegende Holländer sailed into Merrill Auditorium on July 27, in a spare but effective production by the company’s artistic director, Dona D. Vaughn.
Vaughn has made a specialty of pulling together inventive productions that embrace tradition, but with a twist—and, not incidentally, on a tight budget, since Opera Maine is more a mini-festival than a company, presenting only two performances of a grand opera, and two of a chamber opera (this year’s was Philip Glass’s The Fall of The House of Usher) every summer. The twist for Holländer was transferring the action to the Maine coast in 1820, the year Maine became a state (the production was originally meant to celebrate the state’s bicentennial). To that end, the company consulted with the Maine Maritime Museum, the Maine Historical Society and the Freeport Historical Society to ensure that period details were observed.
Mostly, those details were captured in video projections, by Alex Basco Koch, onto a wall of rough-hewn, weathered horizontal slats. In the outer acts, the projections were mostly of the sea, sometimes with the Dutchman’s red-sailed ship, with Maine lighthouses and an intermittent portrait of Senta (in Act I) or Senta and the Dutchman (in the final moments of Act III, after her suicide and the sinking of the Dutchman’s ship). In Act II, Koch’s projection offered a nineteenth–century interior, with florid, period-accurate wallpaper. Otherwise the spare sets, designed by Germán Cárdenas Alaminos, included the bridge of Daland’s ship, the Dutchman’s ragged red sails, three antique spinning wheels and a fireplace mantle with a few trinkets and paintings— including, of course, the Dutchman’s portrait.
The costumes, by Millie Hiibel, were presumably period-accurate as well; except for the Dutchman’s era non-specific (he’d been at sea for a long time) leather coat, they were drab and perhaps New Englandish. Vaughn’s direction is usually thoughtful, but as Wagner goes, Holländer is pretty static, with lots of standing and singing, leaving her only a few crowds (sailors and wool-spinning young ladies) to move around, which she did with sensible efficiency.
Visually modest though the production was, a strong cast projected the eerie power of Wagner’s characters vividly. Mark Delavan, in the title role, was in fine voice and moved commandingly, neither scary (except in his hair-raising final encounter with Senta) nor world-weary, but with an undercurrent of tragedy. Felicia Moore was a superb Senta: her Act II ballad, “Traft ihr das Schiff,” was by turns, vehement, terrifying and deeply compassionate, and she brought sufficient power to match Delavan in their lengthy Act II duet.
That encounter captured one of Vaughn’s directorial strengths, evolving as it did from what at first seemed an alarmingly low energy reading, in which Senta and the Dutchman inhabited separate worlds, towards an extraordinary unity and intensity. Cameron Schutza, as Erik, Senta’s pre-Dutchman beau, brought a hint of Italianate suppleness to the role, tempered by a sense of doomed passion.
Richard Bernstein was solid, if somewhat nondescript, as Daland, and Jonathan Boyd made the most of the Steersman’s big moment, “Mit Gewitter und Sturm.” Sahoko Sato Timpone’s mezzo-soprano seemed texturally light for Mary, but she held the spinning room scene together ably.
Israel Gursky led a comfortably paced account, drawing a generally rich sound from the fifty-one-player Opera Maine Orchestra, and precise, delightfully robust singing from the company’s chorus. —Allan Kozinn

Allan KozinnOpera News