Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard by now that it’s the 200th birthday of two great operatic composers – Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi. Michigan Opera Theatre is honoring both with productions in its 43rd season, opening with “The Flying Dutchman” (Der fliegende Holländer). This is Wagner’s fourth opera, but the first to display what became the trademarks of his mature canon – librettos based on Nordic mythologies, and soaring orchestrations with leitmotifs that actually help tell the story.
We all love Verdi. Cool. But it’s no act of disloyalty to enjoy Wagner. This is opera – not a boxing match. So why are people still afraid of Wagner? Okay, maybe you’re not up for the 18-hour, four-opera Ring cycle. But if you enjoy the film scores of John Williams or Max Steiner, you’ll feel right at home at “The Flying Dutchman.” The production is sung in German, but with English supertitles, so it’s easy to follow the fantastical story while still enjoying the music as it is meant to be heard.
This production showcases the spectacular MOT orchestra, under the baton of Detroit favorite Steven Mercurio, and the talented MOT chorus, directed by Susan Mallare Acton.
Plus, it has that great, spooky ghost story that’s perfect for this time of year. It’s the legend of the cursed Dutch sea captain, doomed to sail his phantom ship with blood red sails for eternity – all because he swore an oath to the Devil. The Dutchman has only one hope of salvation – if he can secure the love of a good woman, who will prove faithful until death, the curse will be broken. But he is only allowed to touch shore once every seven years, and after hundreds of years at sea, he has all but given up hope. This opera tells the rest of the story.
Stage direction is by Bernard Uzan, with magical set design by R.Keith Brumley. They waste no time getting to the storytelling, which begins during the overture with projected images of the red-sailed ghost ship plowing the stormy seas. When the scrim flies, we see a Norwegian ship, with Captain Daland and crew, who have just survived the raging storm and who drop anchor in the harbor, to rest before sailing back home. As the watchman falls asleep, the Flying Dutchman’s ghostly ship pulls alongside, and we are totally drawn into the story.
The principal singers alternate performances. Opening night featured German Bass-baritone Thomas Gazheli (October 19, 23, 26) as the Dutchman. He has a huge voice that thunders in the lower registers and is yet lovely and soft in the more subtle moments. Kristopher Irmiter (October 25, 27), from South Carolina, alternates in the role of Dutchman. Playing the role of Senta, the young woman convinced that it’s her destiny to break the curse, is American soprano Lori Phillips (October 19, 23, 26). Her beautifully robust, colorful voice is well matched with Gazheli’s. Swedish soprano Elisabet Strid (October 25, 27) alternates in the role of Senta.
Turkish bass Burak Bilgili returns to the company as ship captain Daland, Senta’s father. American tenor John Pickle returns as Erik, Senta’s jilted beau. MOT Young Artists Daniel Shirley (Steersman) and Danielle Wright (Mary), also make their company debuts.
There is so much to enjoy about this show – including the Dutchman’s ghastly crew – just go see it and embrace the experience. But if you are still wary of Wagner, check out the "MOT Unmasked" interview with Steven Mercurio that aired on WRCJ – his enthusiasm for the production is irresistible.
“The Flying Dutchman” plays at the Detroit Opera House through October 27, with remaining shows on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and a matinee on Sunday, October 27, at 2:30 p.m. A free opera talk begins one hour prior to each performance with the incomparable Dr. Peace. Ticket prices range from $25 to $125 and can be purchased online, by calling (313) 237-SING, or in person at the Detroit Opera House (1526 Broadway, Detroit). Tickets can also be purchased at any Ticketmaster outlet or by calling (800) 745-3000.
The 2013 fall opera season is made possible by Ford Motor Company. Scenery, props and costumes courtesy of Lyric Opera of Kansas City.