While the term “Eurotrash” gets thrown around more often than it should, it is one that has unfortunately become synonymous with many of the Wagner opera productions that take a non-traditional approach. As opera-goers go, I tend to sympathize with the directors and find that this approach can work fantastically well in bringing Wagner’s logistically impossible scenarios to life. Los Angeles audiences are all too acutely familiar with such controversial productions, having experienced Achim Freyer’s polarizing telling of The Ring just a few years ago. In LA Opera’s opening night performance of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman on Saturday, audiences were once again presented with a futuristic telling of one of Wagner’s larger-than-life myths. While the excitement was palpable, heightened by the last-minute indisposition of the leading lady, the results were underwhelming, and in the case of the production itself, incongruous.

James Creswell as Daland © Robert Millard
James Creswell as Daland
© Robert Millard

Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s futuristic setting was full of busy choreography for the chorus, but little personal connection between the protagonists. In Lehnhoff’s vision, Senta and the Dutchman are set apart not only by who they are, but what they wear. The sailors and Daland all dress alike (imagine Star Wars combined with Monty Python’s Knights of the Holy Grail), with their silver uniforms providing an anachronistic contrast with the Dutchman’s long, black coat and hat. Erik is also set apart with earth-toned, more utilitarian garb. The women of the chorus were outfitted with hoop skirts bearing large, metal rings lining them while Senta modeled a nondescript dress.

The direction was constantly busy for the choruses, whether the women were “spinning” (five dancers were en pointe, endlessly rotating to the second-scene chorus), or the sailors were expanding or contracting a circle, complete with hand gestures or cane props. By contrast, the scenes with Senta and the Dutchman were marked with prolonged staring either at each other or out into the distance. It was an approach where the music was allowed to do the most crucial staging internally. Sure, there were moments of interaction, such as Erik planting a brazen kiss on Senta in the second act, but the most personal and emotionally visceral moments of the piece, such as the meeting of Senta and the Dutchman, were lost to prolonged blankness. There was no tension or pregnant expectation onstage.

The set imitated the oblong form of a ship’s hull, established by two columns of several large, metal “ribs” on either side of the stage, proceeding upstage. A retractable nautical and literal bridge was added when needed, and the Dutchman arrived and departed via a large trefoil that resembled a nuclear radiation warning, but would turn like a propeller on a submarine. A scrim was used almost the entire time. In the second act it had a gigantic silhouette portrait of the Dutchman, but otherwise had a painting of the green sea. Lighting was adjusted to affect opacity, but it lost its effect with its virtual dominance. Like everything else in the production, its over-application tended to overshadow more important aspects.

Unfortunately, the music didn’t fare much better. While there were flashes of beautiful singing, there were, more often than not, unsteady and even unacceptable efforts. Soprano Julie Makerov deserves a pass due to the extremely late nature of her addition to the roster (supposedly twelve minutes before curtain). She had a voice that was at times hair-raising in its intensity, but inconsistent. Icelandic baritone Tómas Tómasson sang the Dutchman while portending a statuesque mystery. Above the staff, his voice was strained, and otherwise wasn’t particularly large or imposing. Bass James Creswell was the most satisfying singer in the cast, singing Daland with a confident air. His resonant bass was jovial and un-wooly. Dramatically, he seemed the most at ease. Corey Bix was overmatched in the role of Erik. While not done any favors by the production, his portrayal was two-dimensional both vocally and dramatically. He was hardly audible over the orchestra far too often. Ronnita Nicole Miller was an appropriately matronly Mary, and Matthew Plenk was a lyrical Steersman.

Maestro James Conlon led a fiercely determined performance, but one that drove singers and orchestra past their technical limits. Balances with the singers onstage were often poor (certainly not helped by the severely raked stage and dry acoustics), and the brass often sounded coarse. The chorus sang with strength and was admirably sufficient, but they have sounded better before. Given the amount of choreography, though, perfect ensemble could hardly be expected.

While the uninterrupted, nearly two-and-a-half hour performance seemed a hit with a good portion of the audience, its determinants cannot be overlooked. Lehnhoff’s concept hits on a few of the overall themes of the piece, but it ends up missing the point when, first and foremost, the relationship of Senta and the Dutchman must be the focus. For Wagner opera at its core, the redemptive love of Senta and her destined union with the Dutchman must be the whole point. Otherwise, Wagner, whether set in the present, past, or future, is short-changed.

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