Princeton Festival’s “Flying Dutchman” [Der Fliegende Hollander] is the only opera in town this summer, and competing for tickets is well worth the effort. The remaining performance of Richard Wagner’s first mature opera takes place Sunday, June 30, at 3 p.m. in McCarter’s Matthews Theater. The opera has not been presented in New Jersey since the 1930s.
A new production of the “Dutchman,” directed by Steven LaCosse and conducted by Richard Tang Yuk, is a feast of excellent vocalists, compelling instrumental collaboration, and visually arresting scenic effects. It played for an enthusiastic audience on Saturday, June 22. Sung in German, the production has English titles.
Originally intended to be a one-act drama, the work is normally performed in three acts. Princeton Festival provides an intermission after Act One, and no break between Acts Two and Three. “Dutchman” is skewed toward male voices. No woman sings until Act Two; only two of the six principal singers are women.
LaCosse has set the “Dutchman” at the beginning of the industrial revolution, about 1840. He replaces young women conventionally seen spinning with factory workers employed in a woolen mill. Carrying through, he has changed the job of Mary, normally a nurse/companion, to a factory foreman. Mezzo-soprano Dana Beth Miller portrays the strict and impatient supervisor with suitable disagreeableness.
The Norwegian steersman (tenor Alex Richardson singing with tenderness) opens the vocal proceedings with the important theme-establishing aria on the deck of a Norwegian cargo ship driven off its course by a violent storm. Yearning in the deluge, he longs for his sweetheart. A Dutch ship, underway for centuries, approaches, and its captain, the Flying Dutchman, boards the Norwegian ship. The Dutchman (gloom-emitting baritone Mark Delavan, singing with unrelenting hopelessness) is doomed to sail the seas until he finds a faithful wife.
Norwegian sea captain Daland, (firm-voiced bass-baritone Richard Bernstein) offers the Dutchman his daughter as a spouse. Senta (the earnest Indra Thomas of glowing voice) has seen a picture of the Dutchman and is obsessed with the possibility of freeing him from his curse by marrying him. Senta’s disappointed suitor Erik (played ardently by tenor Jason Wickson) is distraught. Erik, spurned, accuses Senta of betraying him by her devotion to the Dutchman. The Dutchman, overhearing their argument, mistakenly concludes that Senta has abandoned him. He sails off with his ship, and the faithful Senta leaps into the sea.
LaCosse, with good taste, avoids the conventional ending of redemption in heaven for Senta and the Dutchman. Instead, he ends with a projection of the Dutchman’s ship.
Well-balanced duets contribute to the musical pleasures of the show. The Dutchman and Daland in Act One, with their varying voice ranges, emphasize the complex masculinity of the opera. The Act Two duet in which Senta and the Dutchman sing of their fulfillment with each other is a musical model of fierce ecstasy.
In Act Two Senta and Erik sing passionately as Senta taunts Erik about his fear of the devotion which the Dutchman’s picture instills in her, while Erik pleads that he should have priority over a picture. Their break up aria in Act Three offers a contrast between their moods. While Erik sorrowfully remembers happy times in the past, Senta is convinced that her duty is to leave him in order to serve the Dutchman.
Choruses of Norwegian sailors, the Dutchman’s crew, and townspeople advance the action with transparent delivery.
Conductor Tang Yuk gives the orchestra a dramatic role in the opera. His “Dutchman” overture against the closed curtain summarizes the musical material of the opera with spooky and astringent sounds. As the opera unfolds, solo orchestral passages, without vocal components, repeatedly reflect the mood on stage.
Projections enhance the production visually. As the curtain rises the audience experiences a drenching electrical storm with torrential rain. At other moments projections create long views across the water, allow the Dutchman’s ship to appear and to vanish, and provide on land settings. In addition, they occasionally furnish visual depictions of onstage emotions.
Scenic designs and the projection concept come from Mark Pirolo. The design team includes Norman Coates, lighting; David Palmer, projection; Marie Miller, costumes and wigs; and Martha Ruskai, makeup. No choreographer or movement designer is mentioned in the program; the palpable absence of such a person, however, does not detract seriously from the overall sweep of the production.
Richard Wagner’s Der Fliegende Hollander, Princeton Festival, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Sunday, June 30, 3 p.m. $30, $60, $90, $125. www.princetonfestival.org or 609-258-2787.