Melodrama, Cynicism and The Flying Dutchman

Claire Biringer
Posted on May 17, 2016, 10:00 am
12 mins

Impatience with melodrama is a tough cross to bear as an arts consumer: Overacting, overblown onstage pain and needy attempts at heartstrings-tugging is par for the course in all forms of arts, music and theatre. Exaggerated sighs can kill an otherwise poignant “To be or not to be” speech; a stagey fake faint or gasp can cause titters of laughter from the audience, instead of the more appropriate bated breath. In a particularly vivid childhood memory–the first indication of myself as an arts-loving cynic–I deemed the soaring orchestral theme in the climax of Homeward Bound as “too triumphant,” and I have refused to watch the scene unaccompanied by a disgusted grimace to this day.

In a strange turn of events, this particular cynic developed a love of opera, where melodrama runs rampant and drama can quickly turn into stylized insincerity. I found that, thankfully, the action in opera is often accompanied by spectacle or breathtaking vocal performances, which distracts from cynical thoughts wandering in during a particularly long aria, raising an eyebrow at plot-holes or the relative acting prowess of impressive singers.

But sometimes, great singers and a cool set just aren’t enough.

Just a preface: I understand the motivation behind stylized staging. It can add a level of profundity to otherwise flat characters, another layer of meaning to works that have been deemed “inaccessible” to new audiences. But stylization quickly turns to pretension, and motions that directors conceive of as deep or profound in rehearsal is often much too close to theatrical-in-quotations-marks and something-I-would-have-loved-in-undergrad and, almost counterintuitively, usually a complete bore.

Which is how we find ourselves here–playing a grandiose, established work like a soap opera, thinly veiled in false profundity, where the main stylized motion is extended breast-clutching, pointless slow-motion stage-wandering and an insistence on keeping the singers backed against the walls, as if the weight of the world refuses to let them take center stage. (Unless it’s done ironically, in which case “soap opera thinly veiled in false profundity” is the perfect gloss for early Wagner, but that’s another issue altogether.)

Seattle Opera’s Flying Dutchman, unfortunately, does just that. But the biggest disservice isn’t to Wagner here–it’s to the show’s cast of vocal superstars, whose collective force is breathtaking and deserving of an entirely different staging. Add the raw vocal talent to the visually arresting set piece (an abstract stage-within-a-stage, wholly tilted down to the right so that the playing space suggests a ship, a factory, a hall, all unsettlingly and literally off-kilter), and the show is ripe for rousing success that only a heartstring-tugging performance with an edgy visual component can achieve. So what went wrong?

Rebeccah Nash as Senta in "The Flying Dutchman."

Rebeccah Nash as Senta in “The Flying Dutchman.”

This production takes a twenty-year-old staging by director Christopher Alden with set and costume designer Allen Moyer, originally for Canadian Opera Company in 1996. Alden and Moyer used German expressionism as their artistic inspiration, and superficially, this works to the piece’s advantage. The brash, Munchian portrait of the titular Dutchman evokes an existential angst appropriate to his character. The suggestive set piece allows for interpretation rather than declaration, and certainly much of Wagner’s score–the musical definition of aforementioned existential angst–complements this stylistic choice and the opera’s themes of loneliness, fate and redemption.

Wagner’s work is fit for melodrama, but this production exists on two ends of an extreme spectrum, both of which were made painfully obvious from the start. The opening chorus, as sailors and Captain Daland struggle to keep their ship afloat during a storm, ensues with exaggerated movements from which Charlie Chaplin could take inspiration (or, alternately, think what children’s theatre would have their pint-sized crew do during a gale as their vessel bucks). For the remainder of the first act, as we are introduced to the Dutchman, the staging is brooding, static and unimaginative. We don’t yet know how he came to be in this position, doomed to sail with his undead crew, coming ashore once every seven years in search of a woman who will be faithful until death. What we do know, thanks to the direction, is that his curse has also fated him to be magnetically attracted to walls, and never look another character in the eye again.

Vocally, Greer Grimsley (a Seattle Opera favorite, famous for his Wotan and other Wagner interpretations) is a fabulous Dutchman, with a skilled and expressive instrument perfectly suited for the abstract and agonized music of his character. Though I found Captain Daland’s (Daniel Sumegi) clarity and diction lacking, his nice lows and shallow comic relief were certainly welcome. Tenor Colin Ainsworth’s Steersman was a pleasant surprise; I would gladly listen to his smooth and bright tone, laden with expression and sincerity, sing the entire opera straight through.

Seattle Opera Flying Dutchman.

Seattle Opera Chorus in the Act II “Spinning Chorus.”

Seattle Opera produced Dutchman as Wagner conceived of it, in three acts with no intermission, highlighting the composer’s magical command of transitional music. (As anyone who knows Das Rheingold can attest, this is no small thing and often one of the most salient examples of Wagner’s compositional prowess.) In one point of successful stylized staging, rows of weaving women while away the hours as they wait for their suitors to come ashore, their motions in sync to the point of seeming mechanical.

Senta–who will turn out to be the Dutchman’s one hope for redemption, and conveniently also happens to be obsessed with his fable in a decidedly unhealthy, unstable way–came to life through Rebecca Nash, whose rich tone, youthful energy and lovely delivery almost makes you stop questioning her character’s motives and mental health. She is selfless, devoted and the perfect Wagnerian woman: Strong enough to reject the status quo, but mostly to show complete devotion to one man. However, she is also unfortunately directed to participate in the wall-cling of hopelessness, and the stiff melodramatic blocking casts a strange pall on what, in other productions, is the passion-filled Act II love duet.

Many of the directorial choices throughout the production left me more confused than inspired: The Steersman’s only role in the third act is laughing maniacally and slowly walking the perimeter of the tilted box like a zombie bride; the abstract set piece leaves one uncertain of which boat is which; throughout Senta’s radical declaration of undying love for a cursed man, her father sits in the middle of the set, unreactive and staring into space. In spite of this, Senta’s fate at least holds some interest. The libretto demands that she throw herself from a cliff, thus returning to the same mysterious sea from whence the Dutchman came, a sacrifice presaging Wagner’s Brünnhilde. This production strips Senta of any agency or act of devotion. In a sharp turn towards the humanistic, before Senta can bind herself to the supernatural Dutchman in a transcendent death, her huntsman ex-lover raises his rifle and pulls the trigger, felling her in an act of his own love and supposed compassion.

Seattle Opera Flying Dutchman 2016 McCaw Hall Dress Rehearsal

Rebecca Nash (Senta) and Greer Grimsley (Dutchman) in Seattle Opera’s “The Flying Dutchman.”

This seemingly small choice changes the entire reading of the show: Suddenly, Senta is not allowed to free herself from her boring, bourgeois hell to join the man of her daydreams. A single bullet, not of her own hand, shatters the bond between her and the Dutchman. Most productions stay true to the libretto, which has the two elope in an undead happily-ever-after once she proves her devotion in that final leap, but Seattle Opera’s finale is entirely human, devoid of the Dutchman and fixated on Senta’s crumpled body onstage. There’s a certain beauty to this, in a canon where “humanism” usually refers to upbeat Mozartian comedy where lords and servants arrange trysts in the manor’s garden, but it is vastly unfair to Senta’s strength, her fight for emancipation as a woman and the philosophical higher love that Wagner revered.

This is a show for those who are wowed by sets and grandiosity, who like their arias German and their choruses Italianate, who are more enchanted by the music of Götterdämmerung than Rheingold. It is a show for the lovers of lush orchestras (tenderly and precisely led by Sebastian Lang-Lessing) and early leitmotifs, of striking lighting design (Anne Militello) and vocal prowess and park-and-barking. But this is not the show for the cynic, for the ones who roll their eyes at melodrama without motivation, the ones who want to keep Wagner’s intentions intact, and who like their heroines to remain, if not strong, then at least in control of their own fate.

The Flying Dutchman runs at Seattle Opera through May 21. Buy tickets here.

Claire Biringer
Claire Biringer is a Seattle-based music lover, educator and writer. She holds an MA in Music History from University of Washington, where her primary research involved contemporary opera and its social implications. She enjoys using music and writing to build communities and broaden minds.