After a ten-year absence, New York can once again hear Wagner’s first mature work. August Everding’s 1989 production, set in a late nineteenth-century industrial idiom, now appears rather tired and scaled down, at least compared to my last viewing in, it pains me to say, 1994. As a consequence of what appears to be Met fiscal cutbacks, the chorus and supernumerary casts have been reduced. The blizzard that masked the stage after Senta’s death plunge is now a mere flurry falling on hapless Norwegian bystanders. The transcendent postlude is illustrated only with streaks of sunlight and no longer includes the ascending illuminated souls of the two tragic leads. The transparency of the Dutchman’s ship – represented by a massive hull — is used less, dampening the vital impact of the otherwordly.
Much of the evening’s singing matched the revival’s disappointing visual effects, a special let down in a house whose audience has in living memory heard Hans Hotter, George London, James Morris, Birgit Nilsson, Astrid Varnay, Leonie Rysanek, Hildegard Behrens, and other greats in the opera’s leading roles. Deborah Voigt is the Met’s voice of the current era in Wagner’s dramatic soprano repertoire, having appeared to some acclaim as Sieglinde, Elsa, Elisabeth, and Isolde, and next season scheduled to sing her first Brünnhildes. Her Senta was a pale effort. The voice is more suited to Richard Strauss – Ariadne was Voigt’s “big break” in the 1990s, she sang the title role in The Egyptian Helen to perfection a few years back, and her Chrysothemis in Elektra earlier this season proved a considerable success. But in this latest Wagner role, she suffered from a noticeable lack of energy. Although she warmed over the course of the evening and delivered her final self-sacrificial lines credibly enough, subdued vocalism and stale dramatic delivery eviscerated the second act’s ballad, the scene with Erik, and the duet with the title character. The top notes presented a major challenge Voigt never really overcame, and her German diction sounded surprisingly weak. Her stage presence as Erik recounts his fatally accurate dream moved in what seemed to be an unintentionally comic direction and provoked audience giggles that I have never heard at any performance of the opera.
Paired with Voigt in the title role was the Finnish bass-baritone Juha Uusitalo, whose Jochanaan in Salome last season raised expectations. The voice, however, might also be better deployed in Strauss roles. His Dutchman, which he sings internationally, suffered from a dry legato that gave the impression of an aged singer holding back. Petulance rather than gravitas dominated his dramatic delivery – the character’s massive if misguided sense of betrayal in Act III registered more as a mild annoyance than the life- and love-renouncing trauma it really is.
The supporting cast contributed some bright spots. Tenor Stephen Gould, making his Met debut in the run’s first performance, lived up to his well founded European reputation in Wagner. The voice is not quite up to the Heldentenor capacity required for Siegfried or Tristan, but the lighter and more lyric Wagner tenor roles suit him well. Projecting a robust sound and credible pathos drew more attention than usual to Erik’s music, and with only a few exceptions he managed the entire register with aplomb. Hans-Peter König’s sturdy bass deserves to be known better everywhere. He delivered Daland with attractive force and stentorian verve. Perennial Met mezzo comprimario Wendy White contributed solid characterization to the small but important role of Mary, Senta’s governess. I never cared for the superfluous role of the Steersman, but the young tenor Russell Thomas sang it with merit.
Kazushi Ono has had some success with Wagner in second-tier European houses, even conducting a complete Ring in Karlsruhe. His treatment of the score was better designed for them than for the cavernous Met. The orchestra is well trained in Wagner, but under his direction it glossed over too many meaningful phrases and played with a pedestrian blandness that failed to capture much of the passion.