MAILANDER’S LA - There was a sinking feeling in the orchestra section of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Saturday night, as, moments before the first curtain of the debut of the Opera's present production of Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman," Christopher Koelsch, the Opera's President and CEO, walked onstage in sufficiently natty attire, to make some kind of announcement.
Opera lovers know that a man in a suit strutting onstage just before an opera is to begin is always an ominous sign. It should have its own brooding leitmotiv, in fact...
And indeed, Koelsch informed the sold-out hall that it turned out that the production's much heralded Senta, Portugese soprano Elisabete Matos, was "indisposed" and would not sing this evening.
Opening night! "Indisposed"! The word appeared in a later presser and even on The Twitter too.
Was the Wagner curse--the one that almost sunk the company three years ago, when the company broke the bank staging an iffy, controversial Wagner's Ring cycle--back at LA Opera?
"But you're in for a real treat," Koelsch continued...building sturdy understudy Julie Makerov to the top rung of compensatory hype.
It turned out Matos's Portuguese pipes were burdened by some noxious fluids. She may be back next Sunday. And it also turned out that Makerov was indeed a compensatory delight, a kind of riverboat gambler of a Senta, going very strong early, sparing nothing for later, a high stakes singer for whom the house was constantly pulling. And when it was time to take applause, the house rewarded her nearly as enthusiastically as title role headliner Tómas Tómasson.
This is all very much a good sign, despite the bad luck of Matos. It was a scant three years ago when LA Opera and the Music Center went to County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky to float a three year, high interest bond through Bank of America--to save the company and indeed high stakes opera itself in Los Angeles.
"The risk of doing nothing would have been the collapse of the Opera," Yaroslavsky told me back then.
The Opera's determination to stage Wagner's four-opera Ring cycle brought the company to the precipice of ruin. The Ring was much admired for its singing and musicianship under Maestro James Conlon, but the sets and costumes were vastly unpopular, and they may in fact remain so in perpetuity.
But the Opera has since made good on its bond and its promise to keep LA a world class opera power. Sure, it scaled back a little on the number of performance dates since then. But it has spared nothing on talent, sets, or ingenuity, which for opera lovers and Wagnerians alike (they are not always the same people) is very good news.
Since that production of the Ring appeared, LA Opera has also flung itself headlong into more Wagner: it has done Lohengrin and now The Flying Dutchman since the Ring. Angelenos know what to expect by now from a Wagner opera: Wagner is always riveting yet also always hitting you over the head with something. He is always explaining everything, often in cheap and gossipy ways, but the music makes it all sound essential; and if you check the liner or program notes, he's always doing this in his life and his own work as well.
This is a key element of both his renown and his undoing. For better or worse, he leaves less and less to chance; on every possession, he wants both the terrific subtle pass and the ferocious monster jam. He hits you over the head, again and again; he knows it's kind of fun to be hit over the head again and again musically; but he also does it politically, critically, emotionally, judgmentally.
His gossipy, ingratiating, and sometimes falsely apologetic autobio "My Life" is rife with anecdotes about why this too corpulent baritone was inappropriate and how that unimpressed Jewish critic or publisher was too conspiratorial.
Of the first staging of "Dutchman," he relates that his Senta, Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient (with whom he was obviously smitten), says of her Dutchman (with whom she should similarly be smitten, at least on stage), "How can I come up with this when I look into those beady eyes? My God, Wagner, what have you done?" From this admonition and a few other initial shortcomings, Wagner commits himself to ever greater control of his operas, and ever greater demands of his singers and theaters and scenarists.
But my God, what LA Opera has done here, after its thorny Ring and an excursion into "Lohengrin," is put forth a Dutchman that mesmerizes everyone from the stodgiest Founder's Circle Wagnerians to the snarkiest dress rehearsal Tweetseaters.
Tómas Tómasson's baritone and Makerov's soprano play perfect full-throttle complements--I wish I could see Makos too, but Makerov really made the show. And even if she hadn't, the production is sumptuous enough to make it so: for instance, there are five ballerinas in the spinners song, spinning in full metal jackets and chrome hoops en pointe, this on a raked stage. Very entertaining, as is every square foot of the shimmering slick stage and its ribbed steely wings and unrepentant trap door and crazy propeller escape hatch.
I would rather talk singers than set but the set of this opera is astonishing--astonishing enough that my wife thought the production was the best she's ever seen. The spare steely ribbed flanks of the stage, with a rotating tripartite propeller door at the rear of the stage that sometimes resembles the universal sign for radioactivity, are all appreciably ominous and certainly seaworthy, as is the catwalk that criss-crosses the stage; the ship is more supertanker than clipper.
The creative team behind the production has top-notch Teutonic bona fides; Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Daniel Dooner, Raimund Bauer, Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, Duane Schuler and Denni Sayers all have abundant experience from Staatsoper to Bayreuth.
The team is a considerable relief after the costly Achim Freyer Ring, to which the most commonly ascribed adjective was unkind "Eurotrash"--by which everyone understands everything about it--and which seemed to so many to mock the cycle more than celebrate it.
Maestro Conlon continues to throw everything into everything he does; he obviously loves Wagner; he once told me that one of his top early memories was seeing Parsifal with his brother on a Good Friday.
Approaching 63, our excitable boy and fireplug conductor now commands as much adoration as any visiting ringer soprano. The music through this particular sustained drama, relentless on the horns and played without intermission, certainly rivals and often surpasses whatever is going on across the street on any given night.
The LA Opera Orchestra is nobody's second fiddle, and they have benefited from the direction of not one but two eminently authoritative but entirely different maestros over the years, in Placido and Conlon, and one senses now that it is the audiences who have enjoyed the differences most of all, with Placido able to direct the musicians to play to singers and Conlon to audiences.
I think the scrim through the magnificent and welling Overture shows a detail from the Albert Pinkham Ryder painting of The Flying Dutchman. It also shows the Dutchman in silhouette through much of Senta's stage appearances. The scrim is down a little too much for some tastes; I heard some people wondering if it interferes with the sound when a singer is in the far back of the stage, a concern I share. It certainly didn't interfere with the sound of Makerov, who could be heard through the hall and possibly on Hope and Grand as well. May Makos's wind return to her.
The Flying Dutchman is at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, it next plays Sunday, March 17, at 2 p.m. Then it returns again on Thursday March 21 at 7:30; Sunday, March 24 at 2 p.m.; Wednesday, March 27 at 7:30, and on Saturday, March 30, at 7:30. Tickets may be purchased at laopera.com.
(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of Days Change at Night: LA's Decade of Decline, 2003-2013. Mailander blogs at www.josephmailander.com.)
Vol 11 Issue 21
Pub: Mar 12, 2013