Monday, August 6, 2007

Seattle Opera soars high with Flying Dutchman

Seattle Opera opened its 44th season on Saturday evening at McCaw Hall with a superb production of Der Fliegende Hollaender (The Flying Dutchman). Anchoring an exceptional cast was Greer Grimsley in the title role and Jane Eaglen as the woman who saves him from the curse of continuously sailing the high seas. Clear and straightforward stage directions by Stephen Wadsworth and a wonderfully evocative stage design by Thomas Lynch (reviving Seattle Opera's 1989 production) were complimented by the strong playing of the orchestra under the baton of Asher Fisch and terrific singing by the chorus.

Grimsley's robust bass-baritone amply rang true through the evening. He could easily throw down the throttle and match the huge and beautiful sound that Eaglen can produce. At one point in the second act, Grimsley was able to transition from a full sound to a hollowed out sound that added to the haunting anguish of his character. Eaglen sounded top notch throughout. She took the last verse of Senta's ballad in a very slow tempo that would've just left most other singers gasping for breath. Over all, it added greatly to the emotion of the story.

Exceptional singing by Jay Hunter Morris as the frustrated lover Erik and Luretta Bybee as the disciplinarian Mary helped to distinguish their characters and propel the opera forward. Daniel Sumegi in the role of ship captain Daland did a fine job, although I'd prefer that he spit out his consonants more often. Jason Collins debut as the Steersman was a bit unsteady. It seemed that he had trouble supporting his voice in the higher register. But perhaps that was his opening night jitters.

The first act opened with a Norwegian trawler stalled in fog-enshrouded waters. As the steersman falls asleep, the Dutchman's galleon, larger and imposing, dramatically draws up alongside.

The second act took place in the large workroom of a house in a coastal village. A large painting of the Dutchman dominated one wall, and the women worked on sewing projects from one end of the room to the other. The scene had an older refrigerator and an odd assortment of mismatched chairs and the women passed around a laptop as they worked and sang.

The third act featured a high sea wall where the sailors and the womenfolk lounged around. The ships were docked behind the wall, making an effective backdrop for the last part of the opera. Here Wadsworth's directions moved a lot of people around, but it wasn't too much, and they all effectively helped to communicate the story (as when, for example, the sailors listened for a response from ghostly sailors of the Dutchman's ship).

I thought that the Dutchman's crew could've sang a little louder in order to overwhelm and frighten Daland's sailors in the last act. But both the mens and womens choruses, trained by Beth Kirchhoff, sang outstandingly.

Costumes by Dunya Ramicova were modern except when the Dutchman removed his overcoat to reveal a ship captain's black and gold outfit from a much earlier era.

One of the fun things to notice was the family aspect in this production, because not only were the husband/wife team of Greer Grimsely and Luretta Bybee involved, but also their daughter Emma was one of the supernumeraries. She was the sullen teenager who sympathized with Senta, staring at the Dutchman's picture. The interaction between mother and daughter was fun to watch especially when Mary snatched a cigarette from the teenager and then smoked it herself.

In comparison with Portland Opera's production of the Dutchman earlier this year, I think that Seattle won out. Portland did have a provocative set design, but some of Christopher Alden's stage directions were very unclear and didn't help us to understand the story. Although Richard Paul Fink and Elizabeth Byrne in Portland did an excellent job, I would put the duo of Grimsely and Eaglen against any other. If they keep singing like they did in this production, their artistry will become the stuff of legends.


Anonymous said...

I would agree with most of your comments but I didn't think the singing was excellent. Eaglen seemed to lose her breath in a few spots. Also, Greer was overwhelmed by the orchestra and Eaglen at times, as were most of the other singers and you could not hear them at certain moments. Also, it is very distracting to have a performer as large as Eaglen playing a romantic role. She seemed to have difficulty moving about and also her acting left much to be desired. I felt absolutely no chemistry between her and Greer.

James Bash said...

Perhaps my seating was more advantageous than yours. I sat almost in the middle of the orchestra section (on the floor) and had no problems hearing Grimsley or Eaglen.

I agree that Eaglen's size presents a visual distraction, but I think that Seattle does well to match her up with Grimsely, who is well over 6 feet tall. Unfortunately, many Wagnerian singers are rather large and that factor can reduce there acting because of mobility issues. For me, there was enough chemistry between Grimsely and Eaglen to make the storyline work.