One of the difficulties of producing opera is the planning that must happen long before any rehearsals and performances. The best, or at least the biggest names, sign contracts for work they will do four or five years hence. Casting singer x in role y for a production many years in the future is, at best, a hopeful projection of where the company hopes opera and artist will meet. What happens when the director, seemingly a safer bet as their work is less dependent on anything as precarious as vocal chords, develops in directions the company neither wanted or expected? For San Francisco Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer this discovery led to decisive, if eleventh hour, action: director Petrika Ionesco was sacked a few days before the opening.

Greer Grimsley © Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera
Greer Grimsley
© Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Due to the lateness of the move, the director’s name still appeared in the program (along with his “Note from the Director” explaining the conceptual framework for the production), but a note from General Manager David Gockley in the press notes made it clear that Mr. Ionesco’s ideas had proven impractical, unmusical, and undramatic, so he was relieved of duty. The threads of the auteur’s work were taken up by an in-house team headed by Assistant Director Elkhanah Pulitzer, Production Designer S Katy Tucker, and Gockley himself who worked to salvage what they could, engineer some quick fixes, and bring the Dutchman safely into harbor for opening night.

This co-production with Belgium’s Opéra Royal de Wallonie was first seen in Liège in 2011. I can only assume that difficulties really came into focus when attempting to translate the production from the very small stage in Liège to one of the opera world’s largest in the War Memorial Opera House. According to Gockley, the original projections for the production were refined and expanded to suit this amended vision for the work. Overall, the projections were quite beautiful and effective, from the serene blue sky over calm seas to the tempestuous waves and squalls of an oceanic snowstorm. The bloody interior of the Dutchman’s ghost ship made a lurid yet equally strong impression. The opening scene with the sailors battling the elements to steer their vessel to safety was a harrowing stage picture and gripping opener. The San Francisco Opera Men’s Chorus were fine throughout the show, but this stirring moment instantly pulled me into the story.

The seams showed most in the patchwork stage direction. The movements of characters and choristers seemed choreographed in some moments and improvised in others. The synchronized swaying of Daland and his crew in Act I, the teasing of Senta in Act II, and the line dancing of the drunk sailors in the last Act all played like rote, stock ideas while the principals appeared to be on their own in solo scenes.

Dark and shiny like onyx, Greer Grimsley’s bass-baritone fit the part of the Dutchman like a glove, though it took time for him to warm it up. In his opening scene, the Dutchman sings of his curse to sail endlessly or until the love of a woman can release him. Grimsley, who has performed the role many times, seemed unsure in his movements during this lengthy, tortured monologue as if trying to hit new staging marks laid out for him in the last rehearsal. He found his groove in Act II and showed the ease and command of an experienced Wagnerian. Bay Area native Lise Lindstrom made her San Francisco Opera debut as Senta, the woman fated to redeem the Dutchman. Stepping into the assignment a few weeks ago when Petra Maria Schnitzer withdrew because of illness, Lindstrom wielded her piercing soprano like a gleaming blade. Her singing may have lacked subtlety at times, but Lindstrom’s voice had presence and heft, easily sailing above the orchestra and filling every inch of the auditorium. Her suitor, Erik, was sung in a willowy, understated manner by tenor Ian Storey. Though clearly holding back vocally, Storey’s restraint had the unexpected effect of making his character more sympathetic and less character-like than is typical for Erik. Daland, another character often portrayed in simplistic terms, emerged as a real person in the hands of Kristinn Sigmundsson. Adler Fellow A.J. Glueckert was excellent in the brief, yet critical role of the Steersman. His Act I song, which reverberates throughout the work, was sung with bright tone and powerful production.

Patrick Summers led the orchestra with finesse and control, never letting the momentum of the turbulent seas or the heated passions overwhelm his pacing for the performance.

***11