Photo by Nick CoonThe Dutchman of legend must fly through tempestuous seas for seven years before he can seek redemption; for a while it has looked as if operatic ambitions hereabouts were similarly doomed. Salvation, however — or a pretty good likeness thereof — came last week, not on the Music Center's burning deck, whence all hope hath seemingly fled, but from the forces in Costa Mesa's Opera Pacific, which has ridden out a few storms of its own in recent times but came within a hairbreadth of fulfillment this time out. I am not ready to proclaim that this Flying Dutchman justified the $131 top that the company has now become emboldened to exact (up from last year's $93), but if you match it penny for penny against the L.A. Opera's recent $137 worth of Madama Butterfly, you could look on Opera Pacific's latest offering as the giveaway of the year.
Something about this opera, shortest and most old-fashioned of Wagner's mature scores, brings out the meddlesome in stage directors. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's much-booed San Francisco production of 1975, still occasionally revived, enclosed the action within a dream of the work's least important character, the Steersman on sea Captain Daland's ship. Julie Taymor's 1995 version for Los Angeles included, among its off-the-wall amenities, a ballet sequence for dress dummies. Keith Warner both designed and staged Opera Pacific's Dutchman, created originally for the Minnesota Opera. It's another dream number, this time for the heroine, Daland's daughter Senta, set apart from her dowdy girlfriends by virtue of a bright-red gown that Armani wouldn't disown.
Like most ghost stories, Warner's contrived dramatic overlay does burden the credulity at times. His Senta was already onstage as the overture began, writhing on the floor, reaching out hungrily to the far wall where hung the portrait of the Dutchman of her dreams; she lingered in this trance even though Wagner hadn't given her a note to sing for another hour. Her dreamboat finally showed up an act and a half later — but soon disappeared. Warner's stage set, a vast, open space transformable by lights and scrims from a spook-infested shipboard to a folksy seacoast dwelling, heightened the unreality. At one point the floor split apart, and the Dutchman's ghostly, ghastly sailors rose up in a mighty swirl as if from beneath the ocean floor; you just had to gasp. Nothing of such goose-bumpproducing impact has transpired on an opera stage around here for as long as I can remember. Nothing.
Over it all was the surging, spirited musical leadership of John DeMain, newly appointed as Opera Pacific's artistic director, masterfully dredging up Wagner's D-minor billows from the depths of an alert if undersize orchestra. The major singers, most of them new to the area, ranged from splendid to wonderful: the immensely dramatic, ebony-voiced Dutchman of Mark Delavan; the smaller-voiced but intelligent Captain Daland of Charles Austin; and the Senta of Jeanne-Michéle Charbonnet, a bit reedy at first but rising to a passionate outpouring during her Act 2 ballad. (Yes, there was an intermission, despite Wagner's prescribed single-act format; Costa Mesa's opera-going society isn't yet ready for a two-and-a-half-hour sitdown. Neither was Los Angeles' in 1995.) Everything worked: the interaction of the cast; the lusty, brawling choral ensemble; the harrowing expanse of Wagner's conception.
Founded in 1987 by impresario David DiChiera as the Western outpost of his Detroit and Dayton companies, Opera Pacific has ridden its own rough billows in recent years, with its last director, Patrick Veitch, hardly long enough in office to unpack. After 18 years as music director at the Houston Grand Opera and several guest stints in Costa Mesa, DeMain — buttressed by Martin Hubbard as executive director and Mitchell Krieger as director of operations — implies a new stability for the company uncommon in local operatic circles in recent months. It couldn't happen to a better conductor, or a more promising opera company.
On paper, last week's Philharmonic program suggested innovation and adventure. In actuality, it began with a bang but ended in a fizzle. The incendiary mating of Igor Stravinsky, Peter Sellars and Esa-Pekka Salonen, which trio's Rake's Progress had lit skies over Paris in 1996, flared only sporadically in a misguided and poorly realized L'Histoire du Soldat at the Music Center.
It was inevitable, of course, that Sellars would conjure some eccentric vision of this one-of-a-kind folk-theater gloss on the Faust legend dreamed up by Stravinsky and C.F. Ramuz in 1918; his penchant for not leaving well enough alone has produced a legacy dazzling and disturbing. Sellars' notion has been to relocate the venue of the piece — which the original authors never specified anyhow — in the ethnic melting pot of East L.A.; a newly contrived text by Gloria Enedina Alvarez, which flops back and forth from Spanish to hip-Californian, padded with enough cutesy local references to outfit a year's worth of talk-show monologues, underlines the mix. So, of course, does Stravinsky's music, which flits nimbly from jazz to tango to baroque chorale to wherever, but the overextended text makes for deadly gaps between musical episodes. Imagine, if you can: Sellars plus Salonen plus Stravinsky adding up to boredom.
Perhaps it will all work when the Philharmonic loads the whole production onto flatbeds to tour the city; on the cluttered Music Center stage it didn't. Huge painted panels by artist Gronk provided background color, carried off one by one by stagehands through a jungle of cables and other gadgetry to add to the overall sense of aimless busyness. Over on the side, Salonen and his ensemble, done up in garish, touristy shirts, played their music through overexuberant amplification. All three speakers — María Elena Gaitán, who read the much-padded verbiage of the Narrator, Alex Miramontes as the Soldier and Omar Gómez as the Devil of many disguises — tended to mouth their lines. Near the end, Tiana Álvarez did what she could to arouse the drifting-off audience with a sexy solo dance.
Roberto Sierra's 20-minute percussion concerto, titled With Wood, Metal and Skin, began the program, a Philharmonic co-commission in its world premiere, with the amazing Evelyn Glennie dashing like a demented wraith from one set of big-bang machinery to another: great noise, resistible music. It, too, was done in by its setting; the orchestra, on the flat floor without the usual risers, had to play through the barrage of percussion across the stage front, and came over as audible mush. For the eyes, however, it was by some distance the better part of a mostly unenchanted evening.
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