The Dutchman Sets Sail

Syracuse Opera's multimedia concert of Wagner's "Flying Dutchman" featured excellent singing and a backdrop of studio videos which, at times, left much to be desired.

The Austrian-American composer Max Steiner once said that if Richard Wagner had lived in the 20th century, he would have written for film. Syracuse Opera’s multimedia concert of “The Flying Dutchman” would seem a natural extension of this idea. A montage of student videos were projected onto screens suspended above the orchestra. This cost-efficient staging enabled Syracuse Opera to engage world-class opera singers.

Wagner’s opera tells the story of a captain who sails a ghost ship in search of a woman who will give him respite from deathless wandering. He nearly finds redemption in Senta, daughter of the sea captain Daland. She chooses the Dutchman over a young huntsman, Erik, but her love is fatal: she leaps into the sea after the Dutchman sets sail at the end of the opera.

The multimedia scenery was not able to convey this tragic ending, nor did it deal effectively with the concept of a ghost ship (there were random images of rushing water in its place). An attempt to create a ghost chorus with singers miked offstage led to technical problems that resonated through the speakers.

The montage started out more promisingly in the overture with pulsating lights that mirrored the shimmering strings and natural still shots as the music died down. The Syracuse Symphony was at its best on Sunday, playing with power and technical proficiency. Images of water were particularly effective to enhance calmer moments, and a passage zipping through tangled forest branches as the music raced again added a new dimension to Wagner’s score.

Other artistic decisions in the multimedia visuals detracted from what was a musically thrilling performance. A close-up profile of an expressionless young man came onscreen for the entrance of Greer Grimsley, who is internationally coveted in the role of the Dutchman. Grimsley’s penetrating baritone voice flowed over the audience with great expressive depth. Although the urban light show had become wearing, a flickering neon flame as the Dutchman wonders about his fate was strangely effective.

The video backdrop was most disappointing when it failed to pick up on orchestral passages vividly painting a roaring ocean. There were no images of churning water, waves or flapping sails when the music clearly called for it. The students also never worked with Wagner’s “Leitmotifs” (recurring melodic themes), which would have made the projections more coherent and meaningful. Repeated images such a shot of a feather sitting on a rock or the necklace that untangled on screen before Daland blesses the union between Senta and the Dutchman were arbitrary and unpleasantly distracting.

Senta’s ballad began with a close-up shot of an earring worn by an anonymous woman. When the camera moved to her cheek, one wondered why the students were not able to find a subject with a better complexion. Bright pink lipstick made the sight even more cringe-worthy.

Despite these shortcomings, Lori Phillips brought the distraught Senta to life onstage. Her lush, chesty voice did not lend itself to a round, controlled tone in the upper range, but she sang more freely in the last act. Her vocal chemistry with Grimsley was impressive.

Peter Strummers also played off the Dutchman with dramatic and musical skill in the role of Daland. As Erik, Allan Glassman brought a rich spinto timbre to the stage. Vernon di Carlo, who played the Steersman, has easy high notes and a pleasant lyric voice, but it lacks depth. His diction could also stand improvement. Wendy Buzby’s creamy tone was well-suited to the role of Mary.

Douglas Kinney-Frost led the orchestra with natural authority and flexible phrasing. His musical sensitivity made itself particularly apparent in the chorus „Steuerman! Lass dich Wach!“ which was nicely complemented by images of beer flowing into glass mugs.  As the chorus sang with focus and vigor, the scene managed to transport the audience to a German beer garden both musically and visually.

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