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Waiting for Wagner

April 10, 2010

Composer Claude Debussy is rather famously quoted as saying about the French Impressionist movement emerging in the early 20th century: “We ought to have our own music – if possible, without sauerkraut.” The quote is often erroneously interpreted as disdain for the heavy Teutonic tones of German composers in general and, in particular, Richard Wagner. In truth, Debussy’s exposure to Wagner’s operas during trips to Bayreuth in 1888 and 1889 stirred the French composer, prompting empathy rather than emulation and leaving a lasting impression on Debussy’s work.

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There were ample supplies of musical sauerkraut evident during Madison Opera’s production of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman,” which opened Friday at Overture Hall. The infamous tale of the ghost ship and its imprisoned captain sailing in search of true love roiled and fumed through three melodramatic hours. Like all journeys, moments of rapture mixed inconsistently with the occasional dramatic dead calm, leaving audience members as exhausted as they were exhilarated, and eager to reach home port by the opera’s anticipated, yet still stirring climax.

Despite entering what will be its 50th year in 2011, Madison Opera had never before offered up any of Wagner’s work in its performance repertoire. Perhaps it was fear that the composer’s tales drawn from German mythology, some running near 6 hours in length, might be too much for audience members to absorb. Friday’s enthusiastic response should tell Opera general director Allan Naplan and others that Madison simply has been waiting for Wagner and happy the hoary old composer had finally arrived.

Maestro John DeMain led his musicians through Wagner’s stirring score with his usual aplomb, providing the dramatic backdrop for an opera whose libretto tells of overturning the pact between the Dutchman (bass-baritone Bradley Garvin) and the devil thanks to the true love of Senta (soprano Turid Karlsen) as arranged in exchange for a wealth of jewels by her sea captain father Daland (Dean Peterson), all in 180 minutes. Even in romance, it seems, Germans can be practical as well as efficient.

With a set design of distorted perspective straight out of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the seemingly massive male and female chorus occupies the stage and their roles as sailors and sweethearts with strong voices and slightly confused blocking. Occasionally they tumble and roll to emulate the thrusts and falls of a ship at sea. They climb the riggings, celebrate at the wedding, fight off the spirited invasion of souls from the ghost ship, and in general appear to have a very good, albeit chaotic time.

As The Dutchman fated to sail the seas, docking once every seven years to seek true love, Garvin is strong of voice and appropriately morose. As Daland, Peterson is a bit livelier, and their twin baritones blend nicely as they concoct, shall we say, their exchange of valuables. As Senta, a character already in love with the Dutchman’s portrait inexplicably hanging in the family home, Karlsen’s lilting soprano rises boldly above the female chorus as its members spin and yearn for the sailors they love. And when Senta’s daddy brings her actual dreamboy through the door, she drops the portrait and things really begin to heat up.

Despite its occasional darkness of tone, odd staging and abundance of baritones, “The Flying Dutchman” successfully takes Madison Opera in yet another new direction, one that has been too long ignored. The company already has a full plate, but expect a few more side orders of sauerkraut as it moves into its second 50 years.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2010 4:41 am

    hi, i like your post

  2. Mike permalink
    May 12, 2010 9:19 pm

    Thanks! I hope you will keep reading.

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