The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Madison Opera passes the Wagnerian test of staging Wagner with flying (Dutchman) colors

April 15, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

To successfully stage a Wagner opera is the kind of test or trial that the heroes in Wagner’s own late operas – I’m thinking of the “Ring” and “Parzifal” — have to undergo to prove their worthiness before they can proceed or struggle to have some transcendent experience.

I don’t know what transcendent experience awaits the Madison Opera, which will turn 50 next season — maybe all sell-outs? But I do know that this past weekend, the company very successfully staged its first-ever Wagner opera – “The Flying Dutchman” — in a way that seemed worthy of Wagner himself and his operas.

So to the Madison Opera I say: Congratulations on your landmark achievement. The company has lifted the spelled that let it go Wagner-less so far in its half-century history. That’s like so Wagner, nicht wahr?

The bigger-than-life scale that Wagner favored seemed to pose no problems – at least not to the listener and observer, though one suspects there were challenges galore behind the scenes and on the stage.

The orchestra and especially chorus (below in a photo by James Gill, who took all the photos on this post) were enormous, and they performed well under the baton of music director  John DeMain and the preparation of chorus master Andrew Abrams.

The cast proved strong. I particularly liked soprano Turid Karlsen (below top) as Senta, the Dutchman’s love interest and savior, and even bass-baritone Bradley Garvin, who was suffering from a cold on Sunday afternoon, turned in a strong performance as the ill-fated Dutchman (below bottom) seeking true and eternal love to save him from his fateof endless wandering.

The entire cast, which included UW soprano Julia Faulkner (below in the center, dressed in black), also seemed strong and especially even, which is a big plus when it come to unifying a production.

I liked the abstract or expressionist sets, done in primary blue yellow and read, and the costumes, both of which proved striking to the eye.

And Michael Scarola’s staging and direction were as good as such a motionless opera can be. In fact, during intermission I heard one patron saying she was enjoying this staging far more than the one she had seen at the Met in New York City. That is high praise that seems to come from a knowledgeable source.

I was also taken with the Overture and especially with the illuminated screen that resembled an abstract but colorful and evocative seascape by the English 19th-century painter J.M.W. Turner.

I’ll confess, though, that aside from the overture, Act I for me was pretty deadly and dull. There isn’t a lot of action. It has that kind of static air – which passes in Wagner for serious philosophy and high art – where you want something, anything, to happen.

But Acts II and III proved more involving, more dramatic and human. They moved and were moving.

But even so, clearly this is an early work – it premiered in 1843, six years before Chopin died — and Wagner was still working out his metaphysics as well as his own distinctive musical style complete with leitmotifs or musical signatures to the characters.

That praise given, was this production enough to convert me to being a Wagnerian (or is it Wagnerite)?

I’m afraid not. In the famous duel between Wagner and Brahms, I side with the traditionalist Brahms – though one can and of course does appreciate both.

But I like more sensuality and more melody in my opera, especially since I go primarily for the music and not for the theater or spectacle, let alone the pretentious philosophy.

I guess I also I like my love – see the Dutchman and Senta marrying below — to be less German and more Italian; more carnal and poignantly sinful, less metaphysical and redemptive. So you can still count me a devotee of Puccini and of Mozart.

I think Dorothy Parker, that most American wit, had it pretty right when she said that Wagner’s operas have wonderful moments and terrible hours.

Or of Mark Twain, who quipped “Wagner is better music than it sounds.”

Still, I hope to hear more Wagner from the Madison Opera.

I know that the Ring – in its individual four operas, let alone its entirety — is beyond the company’s capacity, and that the earlier Wagner operas like “Rienzi” are rarely staged for good reason.

So I keep wondering about doing a concert version of highlights with maybe some costumes and projected images or minimalist sets but with  great singers. Both George Szell and Erich Leinsdorf, I believe, made instrumental anthologies of the Ring and James Levine is scheduled to conduct an all-Wagner evening at the Boston Symphony next season.

I think savoring tidbits or tapas of mature Wagner would be a delicious meal indeed – especially with the voices that Madison’ Opera’s Allan Naplan and the Madison Symphony’s John DeMain manage to find and bring to town.

But that is another tale for another season.

In the mean time, I know that what they learned from doing this first Wagner opera will push the limits and abilities of what they do next season with Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” Verdi’s “La Traviata” and Kurt Weill’s “The Three-Penny Opera.” This production, which was not a sell-out but did sell very well (better than Gounod’s “Faust” last season, according to the company) will certainly boost confidence of both performers and audiences.

And, one suspects, subscription ticket sales as well.

It is good to see ambition succeed.

That, too, seems very Wagner.

Posted in Classical music

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