Raging Genius


Total Wagnerian Package Comes Together in’Flying Dutchman’

What can you say about Richard Wagner? A lot, actually. The German composer, conductor, music theorist and essayist remains opera’s mad king, much as Ludwig van Beethoven was Bavaria’s.

Despite the blotches on his personal and professional personas—his operas were admired by the Nazis, he was both a high romantic and a womanizer, and he was keenly aware of his own genius—Wagner spent his life perfecting a new art form that combined elements of poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts into one über package that transcended and forever transformed the world of opera.

Today, going to a Wagner opera is a practice in the art of swooning. His music alone demands your heart, soul, dedication, attention, passion and complete engagement—and you give it up without a glimmer of skepticism.

The current Washington National Opera production of “The Flying Dutchman” is early Wagner, but still thoroughly Wagnerian, as the German master strikes all the themes of his life, creativity and desires to just overwhelm the hell out of you. Wagner’s tale of life-saving love, misfortune and redemption drowns viewers in a flood of emotion—much like the main character who’s been cursed to forever sail the seas until he finds his true love.

Wagner wrote the opera around the time he himself was running all over Europe, trying to get away from creditors and critics in his own sea of distress. In his autobiography, he also claimed to have composed some of the music based on a tumultuous journey at sea that ended in Norway.

But the original tale can be traced back to a satirical novel by Heinrich Heine, who actually thought the old legend a bit silly. Still, the nautical yarn has preserved over the centuries (even popping up in pop culture such as the Disney film trilogy “Pirates of the Caribbean”). Disney swashbuckling aside, the folklore centers on a Dutch captain who makes a very bad deal with the devil that results in his sailing the ocean forever, “doomed for eternity” as a kind of undead romantic figure. Every seven years though, he’s allowed to make port in the hopes of finding a completely faithful love that will break the spell and end in his salvation. This puts a lot of pressure on shore leave, but the story has the elements of hope and the prospect of finding purity in mankind that Wagner always embraced in a general sort of way, if not in the personal sense.

Opera aficionados are familiar with this ghost story—a romance of redemption, with a roaring sea adventure to boot—but Wagner takes “Dutchman” to another level, in the process illustrating the mysterious allure of opera firsthand. It’s a transcendental art form in which everything is heightened, from sight to sound. The sopranos and tenors may not at first glance look like the poignant, beautiful heroines or thunderous, dangerous romantic figures they portray, but through their magnificent voices they embody their characters with an unrivaled force. Propelling those voices is the music—and Wagner’s music is a torrent of emotions that perfectly complements the tumultuous backdrops he creates in his epic operas.

“Dutchman” is often done in two or three acts, but Wagner originally wrote the opera as a one-act production. True to Wagner’s intentions, the Washington National Opera performs “Dutchman” in one act without any intermission, a daunting prospect for well over two hours. But the time goes by swiftly precisely because you’re swept along by the music, story, imagery and above all, the singing of the two leads.

Bass-baritone Alan Held stars as the doomed Dutchman, who finds love and salvation with pure-hearted Senta, performed by soprano Jennifer Wilson (with Lori Phillips in the role on April 2 and 7). Conducted masterfully by Heinz Fricke, both stars have the singing chops to carry off Wagner’s wild and woolly tale of eternal love.

Wagner’s dream of “total art” also comes to fruition here, thanks to the set design by Giles Cadle and lighting by Joan Sullivan-Genthe. Before he ever sings a note, the Dutchman hangs on his ship’s ropes, under a sign that reads “Verdamnt (Damned)”—a visual embodiment of his plight. The set itself, while very seaworthy, is also very strange, created in a surreal style similar to the German silent movie classic “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” with windows opening and closing and the planes of the stage jutting out at odd angles.

It’s all part of the total package that Wagner perfected to entertain his audiences, artfully meshing tragedy and drama with charm and merriment—even in this dark saga of ill-fated love.

Wagner the man remains a controversial figure for many, but whatever unease his biography or beliefs may inspire, his genius is undeniable. Wagner once said, “I am like the Flying Dutchman and his shipmates, who are constantly tossed on the cold waves.” His audience too gets tossed around by this raging operatic masterpiece, but resistance is futile and the ride may be stormy, but immensely satisfying.

The Flying Dutchman through April 10 Kennedy Center Opera House at the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and Rock Creek Parkway, NW Tickets are to 0. For more information, please call (202) 295-2400 or visit www.dc-opera.org.

Opera Soars into 2008-2009 Season

If “The Flying Dutchman,” which kicked off the spring portion of the Washington National Opera’s 2007-2008 season, isn’t enough Wagner for Wagner buffs, they’ll probably get sated by the end of the 2008-2009 season.

Here’s a look of what’s left of the spring season—which includes a rare vocal appearance by Washington National Opera Artistic Director Plácido Domingo—as well as a first peek at what promises to be an exultant 2008-2009 season.

In addition to Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman,” April brings us Giuseppe Verdi’s tragic “Rigoletto,” the story of a deformed court jester who’s daughter is seduced and abandoned by his boss. Despite the dark undertones, this is one of the most beloved and familiar operas in history.

In May, a much anticipated spring highlight will be the appearance of Domingo in the title role of George Frideric Handel’s baroque opera “Tamerlano,” about the world conqueror who excited the imaginations of countless composers and playwrights (think Christopher Marlowe’s “Tamburlaine”).

Also on tap this spring is Richard Strauss’s “Elektra” with Susan Bullock in the title role. Greek tragedy mixes with Strauss’s electrifying music, a winner of a combination.

Not enough big names? How about Renée Fleming, Andrea Bocelli and Denyce Graves? And did we mention Wagner? Those are some of the great stars of the Washington Opera’s 2008-2009 season, which is about as ambitious as you can make it.

Wagner’s epic “Ring” cycle (“Der Ring des Nibelungen”) will be a particular attraction, with “Siegfried,” the third work in the cycle, receiving its company premiere in May 2009, and “Götterdämmerung,” the final work, appearing in November 2009.

The great romantic classics aren’t being ignored, and there’s nothing quite as romantic as “La Traviata” by Verdi, featuring soprano Elizabeth Futral as the doomed courtesan Violetta Valéry in a September-October 2008 run.Almost as tragic and romantic is Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” coming in November with Denyce Graves as the fiery gypsy seductress.

Less romantic, but just as enticing, is Gaetano Donizetti’s tale of madness and murder, “Lucrezia Borgia,” starring the incomparable soprano Renée Fleming in November.

November will also include “Petite Messe Solennelle,” a concert work by Gioachino Rossini that will be performed with a quartet of soloists, including the great tenor Andrea Bocelli under the direction of Domingo himself.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.