Opera houses around the globe are clamoring to celebrate the much-anticipated 200th year since Richard Wagner’s birth, and tonight the Opéra de Montréal offered the composer’s first real theatrical triumph, Der Fliegende Holländer, to an eager audience.

Thomas Gazheli and Maida Hundeling © Gary Beechey
Thomas Gazheli and Maida Hundeling
© Gary Beechey

Wagner crafts his libretto from the old German tale of a ship commanded by a captain who, in an act of utter desperation, makes a pact with the devil and is condemned to spend his life eternally at sea. His only repose from eternal nautical wandering comes each seven years when he is given a chance to break the curse, but only if he can find a wife who will remain faithful until death. Before meeting Senta (Maida Hundeling), the daughter of Captain Daland (Reinhard Hagen), all his attempts at salvation have ended in disaster.

The production, as a whole, was quite striking visually, dramatically and musically. A Christopher Alden production (remounted by Marilyn Gronsdal), the drama made full use of Wagner’s powerfully suggestive accompaniment. The stage design was equally stunning. The entire stage was mounted diagonally so that stage right was significantly higher than stage left, creating the effect of a listing ship.

As per usual, Wagner’s overture is quite extensive in scope. The music evokes the Germanic medium of tone poems in its grandeur. Conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson’s baton was sharp, suggestive and at all times musically informed and sensitive to the action onstage. Her refined leadership was a highlight of the evening.

The Dutchman himself, sung by Thomas Gazheli, initiated the drama tonight. Gazheli’s voice cut through the hall brightly, even in the lowest range, and was tinged at all times with emotion and the effects of a long, seemingly endless struggle. The rectangular shape and solid material of the set itself served to project all the voices clearly into the hall tonight – even the most powerful singers frequently struggle to project in Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. Whether or not intentional, this acoustical boost was much appreciated from the audience.

The most powerful moment of the first act was the Dutchman’s tormented aria of damnation, in which he explains his plight and recounts his many attempts at suicide, singing “Judgement Day, when will you come and brighten my night?” This was some truly fantastic singing.

The first act is completely devoid of female voices. This is in fact a good dramatic trick by Wagner, perhaps to illustrate the atmosphere of an actual ship, which would usually be manned solely by men. However, this is not fundamentally a nautical tale, but one of the redeeming power of love. Needless to say, after a whole act of masculine voices, the chorus of females which opened the second act was truly a reprieve. Both male and female choruses were very well trained tonight. As the wives of the crew mates of Daland’s ship worked tirelessly at the spinning wheels to prepare for their husbands’ arrivals, Senta sat transfixed at the other end of the room, staring at her portrait. Here we heard the first notes from soprano Maida Hundeling; her voice was round and warm and her acting quite engaging, though she often began to sing well before the orchestra at key musical arrivals, despite the crystal clear accompanying of Maestra Wilson.

At last Erik (Endrik Wottrich) made his entrance as the man for whom Senta has promised her love. Now he is worried that she spends too much time obsessing over the portrait of the Dutchman, and even had a prophetic dream in which the stranger’s curse was lifted by her very love which he claimed for his own. Wottrich’s aria was another highlight of the evening. His voice was filled with emphatic desperation, cutting through the hall with a wide palette of overtones, the drama punctuated by his threat to end his own life with a rifle. When Senta’s father allows his daughter and the Dutchman to meet, some of the most glorious music in the opera pours forth as the Dutchman addresses his would-be wife. Often the most staggering moments in Wagner operas are the silences, precisely because they are surrounded by such monumental vistas of sound. When the orchestra thinned to nothing just before Gazheli began his aria, this was a remarkable moment. Chromatic strains reached ever upward as he sang with a kind of erotic desperation – the effect was as mesmerizing as it was heart-wrenching.

The third act began with a truly classic German feast of drunkenness with some very substantial writing for chorus. Again, the chorus was impressive and consistently accurate in diction and rhythm. One unfortunate decision in this production was to amplify the voices from the ghost ship, most likely to enhance the supernatural element in the story, however the effect was quite confusing and musically disjointed.

As a kind of precursor to Tristan und Isolde’s Liebestod, Senta commits herself to eternally love the Dutchman, and yet he doubts her after hearing the pleadings of Erik. In a fit of jealous agony, Erik murders Senta with his rifle, thus releasing the Dutchman from his curse, having successfully found a wife who would love him unto death. What remains of the opera after the murder is only a few bars of music which, curiously, turn quite joyous in tone. In death, Senta had provided salvation for this cruelly tormented man, and for her, this was a worthy sacrifice.