Saturday night marked James Conlon’s final performance as Music Director at Ravinia, a title he has held for the past eleven seasons. His performances this summer have been centered on the composers with whom he is most associated and has conducted extensively during his tenure – among them, Mozart, Mahler, Zemlinsky, Shostakovich and Wagner. For his swansong, he treated audiences to a concert performance of Wagner’s early masterpiece The Flying Dutchman, supported by a stellar cast and top drawer playing from the Chicago Symphony.

James Conlon © Chester Higgins
James Conlon
© Chester Higgins

Der fliegende Holländer is something of an oddity among Wagner’s output, it being the earliest of his stage works in the standard canon. While there are hallmarks of the mature Wagner – the use of leitmotifs, a story based on folk legends, an outcast protagonist – it is a far more conventional score than his utterly revolutionary works in the genre. The influence of Weber is never distant, and structurally it is built around the tried and true recitative-aria and other operatic conventions he would later jettison.

Conlon was greeted with a prolonged standing ovation before even a single note was played. Plunging into the stormy overture, he set the dramatic tone for what was to come. Indeed this is music that had strong personal significance to the composer as Wagner himself was caught in severe storms off the Norwegian coast (where the opera takes place, departing from the Scottish setting of the original tale) en route to London while fleeing his debts in Riga. The octave tremolos in the strings over bare fourths and fifths in the brass that open the work paint a barren, primeval landscape in these most fundamental of intervals. The CSO in such fine form was arguably the real star of the performance – it is regrettably not often enough that one gets to hear an orchestra of this caliber perform a complete opera.

Justly regarded as one of today’s most celebrated Wagnerians, Greer Grimsley triumphantly conquered the role of the Dutchman. Physically, he fits the part well, his height and long hair bringing to life this ghostly Gothic creation. The visceral power of his booming bass-baritone was especially felt in his opening monologue “Die Frist ist um” and in his enraged farewell to Senta in Act III when he believes she has been unfaithful, thereby condemning himself to the continued curse of being perpetually lost at sea. His Act II duet with Senta showed a different side: passionate, but gentler.

Amber Wagner is quickly establishing herself as a prime interpreter of her namesake composer – including locally, in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Lohengrin (Elsa) and Tannhäuser (Elisabeth) – and she scored another unqualified success as Senta. Her full-bodied tone sent chills down one’s spine as she sang Senta’s Ballad, where she recounts the legend of the Dutchman (whom she’s imminently meeting in the flesh) as if possessed by some otherworldly spirit. Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson was very effective as Senta’s father Daland, hovering between genuine concern for his daughter, and happily agreeing to marry her off to the Dutchman given his bounty of treasure – the latter to almost comic effect.

As Erik, Simon O’Neill ardently conveyed the passion of Senta’s suitor who is ultimately hapless as he is no match for the mystique of the unnamed Dutchman. The two smaller roles were carried out admirably as well: Matthew Plenk as the steersman, his tenor providing a proper foil to Daland, and Ronnita Miller’s warm tone was well-suited to the maternal disposition of Mary. Expertly prepared by Duain Wolfe, the Chicago Symphony Chorus also proved a force to be reckoned with. The men, as the chorus of sailors, provided thrilling drama and energy (although it would have helped if the surtitles differentiated between the Dutchman’s crew and the Norwegian sailors), and the women offered suitable contrast most notably in the well-known Spinnerlied that opens Act II in which they delicately weaved their parts through the strings and winds.

There was little, if any, acting done by the soloists, but this was hardly a detriment to the drama as it instead allowed one to focus on the sheer power and beauty of the music. Still, perhaps some action could have been done to further to convey the opera’s most tragic ending, in which Senta throws herself into the sea so as to spare the Dutchman from his eternal fate. Transfigured, Senta and the Dutchman are reunited and the music soars into one of Wagner’s most divinely inspired codas, giving the resplendent CSO the final word and thus bringing to a close James Conlon’s illustrious chapter in Ravinia’s storied history.