The idea for The Flying Dutchman, now at the Los Angeles Opera until April 12th, apparently came to composer Richard Wagner during a particularly turbulent sea crossing from Prussia to England. The voyage lasted three weeks instead of the usual one, and the superstitious sailors believed it was the presence of the ominous Wagner and his wife that was responsible for the foul weather. The libretto of The Flying Dutchman is Wagner's own reworking of bits of the Odyssey, the Wandering Jew legend (in the German poet Heinrich Heine's version) and historical accounts of plague-ridden ships being barred from ports in Medieval Germany. Wagner added to it his own twist, that the Dutchman is allowed to land once every seven years in order to find the woman who would save him through eternal love. The opera, which is one of Wagner's most hummable, with its stormy overture, sea chanteys and Spinning song, was not a success when first produced in Dresden in 1843, but has since gone on to be a staple of the repertoire. So it should have been clear sailing for this revival of the 1995 Julie Taymor production (she of Lion King and Frida fame).
But it seems completely rudderless, with facile staging ideas (such as the Dutchman's mysterious death ship looking like a battered Polynesian war canoe) that make no sense, nearly non-existent acting, and lackluster singing.
For me the problems begin with Bernd Weikl's Dutchman, who comes on stage as part vampire and part Klingon warrior. He seems somehow more embarrassed than lost, singing mostly into the orchestra pit, rather than any figure of mythic stature. Soprano Mlada Khoudoley (a prot-g- of Valery Gergiev) sang the part well enough, but really needs to learn how to act. When she and Weikl were left on stage alone for what should have been the high points of the drama - the haunting love duet when they first meet in Act II and their passionate love-death reunion in Act III - it was just down-right theatrically dull. Only Donald Kaasch, as Eric, the huntsman in love with Senta, seemed to bring a full three-dimensionality to his role.
Most of the blame should probably go to Ms. Taymor, who seems to have abandoned ship and left director Vera Calabria to patch together the pieces under a reduced budget. The set and costumes by designers George Tsypin and Constance Hoffman, respectively, must have looked much better in the mid-nineties, when post-modernism was still in vogue. I defy anyone who doesn't know the opera before-hand to show me where in the last act Senta flings herself into the sea to be united with her Dutchman forever in death - under the water.
Sorry, this is a revival that just shouldn't have happened. The Flying Dutchman drifts on at the Music Center until April 12.
This is Louis Fantasia for KCRW