Show Thoughts: Der Fliegende Höllander at Houston Grand Opera

It’s been years since I saw an opera live. I’ve listened to many recordings, and watched a few video recordings, but I haven’t seen one live.

A lot of factors coincided for me to finally get back. First, I’ve never listened to or seen this particular work. Second, I committed (with mixed success) to having a new artistic experience every week. Finally, HGO is returning to the Wortham Theatre Center for the first time since hurricane Harvey flooded the area.

So I decided to go out and see if opera holds up after immersing myself in musicals for a few years.

The experience of going to the opera has always been one of particular grandeur. Especially opening night, when the excitement of a high-end social function adds on to one of the most luxurious artistic experiences. Stereotypically, at least.

It’s a little different when you’re up in the back. The back of the balcony has always been the place for those who are more interested in seeing than in being seen. There are lots of stories of the great composers sitting up in the back watching the masterworks of the previous generation.

A quick sidebar, the opening night of an opera (Salome by Richard Strauss) is how Alex Ross chose to start his book “The Rest is Noise” which is an incredible overview of the course of 20th century western art music.

So guess where I was sitting. I was two rows in front of the back wall, all the way in the top. So far up that I joked on Instagram about renting opera glasses. It was a fun experience though. I hope to do try it again soon.

Let’s get to the opera now!

A quick summary of the plot of Der Fliegende Höllander:

Act 1 occurs on a ship in the sea. Daland, the Norwegian captain and crew despair of surviving the storm, but it finally clears up and they rest. They leave the helmsman to watch, and as he dozes off he sees a ghostly ship with red sails. The captain of this ship, the Dutchman, comes aboard and in a soliloquy to the audience explains that he is only allowed on shore for one day every seven years due to a curse.

When Daland greets him, the ghostly Dutchman asks for hospitality and offers uncounted riches in exchange for marrying his daughter. Blinded by greed, Daland heartily agrees and excitedly takes the treasure away.

In Act 2, we find the wives and female relatives of the sailors working away in a factory. To pass the time, they sing songs to themselves. The Daland’s daughter, Senta, sings about the plight of the legendary Flying Dutchman and how much she adores him from afar. When news that the ship has returned, the women run to see their men.

Senta’s lover, Erik, confronts her, begging her to be careful. He had a dream that her father came home with a mysterious stranger and she left with him. Senta listens with great interest, and when her father shows up with the Dutchman, she is even more excited as he is the man of her dreams. She eagerly agrees to marry him.

In the third act, the sailors and women are celebrating their return. They invite the Dutchman’s crew to join them, but the crew replies with a terrifying, ghostly moan that sends everyone fleeing in fear.

Erik confronts Senta, and when she pushes him away, he pulls her in and kisses her, just as the Dutchman comes to find her. He accuses her of unfaithfulness and bitterly makes to leave. To prove her faithfulness even unto death, Senta throws herself from the top of the wall and frees the Dutchman from his curse. The final moments show them reunited in paradise.

The story is pretty compelling, really. Just reading there, it sounds like a solid, interesting plot. But it also sounds like about 45 minutes worth of dialogue. The show ran about 2.5 hours, with constant music and three long scenes.

This means that things are a little slow at times. For example, the Dutchman’s first aria runs nearly ten minutes of exposition. It consisted almost entirely of the Dutchman wandering around the stage. The portion of Act 3 where the sailors invite the dutchman’s crew takes somewhat longer than expected too, though it has some amazing musical moments.

I have two other quibbles with this work. Then I’ll talk about the fantastic moments.

One is an issue with the text of the work. It does an excellent job of setting up all the elements of the story, but it doesn’t quite solve its own problems. My biggest frustration was that Senta never addressed her fascination with the Dutchman, and he never questions how eager she is to marry him. There would be some interesting conversational material, if the work took the time. Perhaps an idea for someone else to revisit?

My other complaint was the proportions of the stage. It’s an odd one, but it has annoyed me for awhile. In large theatres, the proportions of the stage usually reflect the size of the hall. That is, they are usually large and deep. It’s architecturally satisfying, but leads to odd proportions onstage. Living rooms become cavernous halls, walls are extended up into infinity, or (in this case) ship decks become a massive open space. It just seems incongruous to me.

I should point out that that last point is not just a problem with opera stagings. It happens with musicals and plays too. I started on a tangent, but that will be a different article later.

Let’s finish this thing off with a few superlatives. Melody Moore, who played Senta, was phenomenal, performing high her high notes with ease and great character. She had a few low notes that were warm and rich enough that I initially though the role was for a mezzo-soprano. Her performance of Senta’s ballad about the Dutchman was fantastic.

Andrzej Dobber, who played the Dutchman, was fine. He had a rather thankless entrance, with great presence undermined by a rather plodding aria. It felt longer than it probably was, but the staging didn’t help much. In the later acts he was much more engaging, and his presence was absolutely intimidating and arresting.

But of course, with my choral background, I was drawn to the choral writing. Performed by the Houston Grand Opera Chorus, every moment of ensemble singing was incredible. All three acts feature the chorus at times, and the balance and color throughout was awe-inspiring. It almost matched the orchestra color (every time the horns came in with the Dutchman theme, I got a shudder).

Overall, an excellent experience and I highly recommend it. From the very back of the balcony, you can’t quite see the last moments, but the rest works quite well. Hope to see a show from down front some day, but for now I’ll enjoy the music from somewhere.