Last night at the War Memorial Opera House, the “bicentennial month” of the San Francisco Opera (SFO) continued with the first of seven performances of Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. The production originated in 2011 at Belgium’s Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liege, whose stage is much smaller than that of the War Memorial Opera House. The transition was thus a difficult one, which eventually resulted in a statement released to the press by General Director David Gockley:
It is true that I removed Petrika Ionesco from his role as director and scenic designer once the production arrived onstage, as it had become clear that the revisions we had been working on since the Liege premiere were not successful. Of the basic scenic pieces designed by Mr. Ionesco, 60% remain. The staging of principals has been considerably simplified, and the use of supernumeraries for various purposes has been virtually eliminated. Many of the projections originated conceptually with Mr. Ionesco, but they have been expanded upon and refined by production designer S. Katy Tucker working closely with me and the staff—most specifically with Assistant Director Elkhanah Pulitzer. Our goal has been to tell the story of the opera clearly, theatrically, and musically.
Of the three “tines” of that goal, the last was achieved most successfully. Patrick Summers led the SFO Orchestra in an intense account that vividly captured the full spectrum of expression that Wagner realized through his score. As I had observed in my preview piece, this was the first opera in which Wagner used a rich lexicon of motivic elements to capture both the major events of the narrative and the character types of the actors responsible for those events. As a result, that first “tine” of clarity was achieved almost entirely through Summers’ execution of his conception of Wagner’s score.
Sadly, things changed significantly when attention shifted from the orchestra pit to the stage. I wish to explore the hypothesis that the difficulty resided in a fundamental misconception of the opera itself that ran far deeper than any of the prevailing problems of transition. One must begin by recognizing that the libretto that Wagner wrote for this opera has some impressive merits of its own, some of which must have struck that first audience in 1843 Dresden as revolutionary.
From our current vantage point, we might almost call Wagner’s libretto “postmodern.” Ultimately, it is a story about a story, the latter being the legend of the Flying Dutchman. As the libretto unfolds, three characters provide us with a narration of that legend. The first one comes in the first act, and it comes from the Dutchman himself. Then, in the second act, it is told again in the one major aria that Wagner wrote for Senta. Finally, it is told by Senta’s betrothed, Erik, who relates it in terms of a dream he has experienced. (I would also observe that there is actually a fourth narrator. This is the orchestra, since the overture amounts to a narration of the legend in a strictly musical language.)
Now, the thing about a good story is that it is not overladen with detail. The best storyteller is the one who relates just enough to trigger the imagination of the listener or reader. The successful storyteller is the one who provides others with an account of the story that leaves them with both the desire and capacity to retell it to new audiences. (In the context of the SFO season thus far, think of both Stephen King and William Shakespeare.)
From this point of view, all elements of the art of good storytelling were pummeled into insignificance by an overwhelming barrage of “media experiences.” The projections designed by Tucker were the dominating element, but they were not the only factor. The scenic design also contributed to the mix, particularly in the use [spoiler alert] of an enormous trapdoor that opened to reveal what looked like a rejected design for the Disneyland Pirates of the Caribbean ride. There was also an explicit flaunting of Wagner’s text in the second act in taking most of the women away from their spinning wheels and having them work, instead, over enormous dying tubs (whose colors did not match the cloth being extracted). (Did this have something to do with Die Frau ohne Schatten?)
In the midst of all these visual complications on stage, one can appreciate Gockley’s observation about the need to simplify the staging of the principals. Unfortunately, the damage had been done before Ionesco was removed. All four of the major singers, Greer Grimsely as the Dutchman, Lise Lindstrom making her SFO debut as Senta, Kristinn Sigmundsson as Daland, and Ian Storey as Erik, performed as if they were occupied with so many minor details that the fundamental task of strong accurate vocal delivery was overwhelmed. One sensed that Summers was trying to attenuate the masses of sound in the pit to accommodate those singers, but there was only so much he could do without compromising the requirements of Wagner’s score.
The important point is that this is a story that thrives most vividly in the imagination. A staging that leaves little for the imagination to do undermines the fundamental essence of storytelling. Wagner appreciated the importance of that essence in not only his music but also the narrative plan of his libretto. Last night Wagner was honored only for his music, meaning that his opera was trying to stand on only one leg. One could have hoped for a better way to recognize the 200th birthday of a man who so significantly advanced the progress of how we have come to think about opera at all.