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Richard Wagner's 'Flying Dutchman' Lands At LA Opera

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No other opera provides a more accessible introduction to the heady musical dramas of Richard Wagner than his first mature composition, "The Flying Dutchman," which opened on Saturday at the LA Opera for a six-performance run. Not only is this piece considerably shorter than the composer's later work, running less than 2.5 hours without intermission, but the romantic sweep of its stormy story line is based on a popular legend and rather less tied up in complex Teutonic mythologies and the aesthetic controversies of his own historical milieu.

This new LA Opera production also had a stormy backstage story line of its own on opening night. Internationally renowned lead soprano Elisabete Matos realized she was too ill to sing less than 15 minutes before the curtain was scheduled to rise on her debut performance with the company. Oblivious to this drama in the wings, the audience waited patiently as the minutes after 7:30 p.m. passed and no opera was getting underway. LA Opera President and CEO Christopher Koelsch finally stepped out on stage and told us that Matos was "indisposed" and would be unable to go on. Still, he assured us, we were "in for a treat" that evening because the key role of Senta would instead be played by Los Angeles-based Julie Makerov, who had previously sung the part to acclaim in Toronto and Salzburg.

And indeed Makerov's performance turned out to be the highlight of the night. Any sympathy or lowered expectations that might have been granted due to the strained circumstances under which she was pressed into service proved perfectly unnecessary, as she not only sang the role powerfully, but also appeared to hit all her marks and relate to her castmates without a hitch.

Most of these castmates were pretty good, too. Icelandic baritone Tomas Tomasson, also making his LA Opera debut, doesn't have the world's strongest voice, but he cannily infused the title role of the accursed sailor with a combination of pathos and dark resentment. His exceedingly dramatic opening lamentation aria, in which he recounts the circumstances of his Sisyphean fate and describes his vain quest for death, commandingly seizes our attention and sets us up to share his later hopefulness and ultimately to reel in the tragic irony of his final misguided despair. As Senta's father, Daland, LA Opera stalwart James Creswell is a lively, almost sympathetic cretin, blithely agreeing to sell his daughter off to the Dutchman in an unusually perky basso comico. In smaller roles, Matthew Plenk as the Steersman and Ronnita Nicole Miller as Senta's Nurse, Mary, both make highly credible contributions.

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Above all, though, it is the central love duet that inevitably serves as the touchstone in assessing any "Dutchman" performance. Makerov's emotional force shone brightly, while Tomasson never quite let his character emerge from the black-souled depth in which his Dutchman more appropriately spends the rest of the opera.

Like most LA Opera offerings these days, this "Dutchman" production began its life with another company, originating in Chicago and taking a turn in San Francisco before arriving on our Southern Californian shores. Production director Nikolaus Lehnhoff and set designer Raimund Bauer unaccountably enclose most of the action in a metallic gray environment that evokes the interior of a nuclear submarine more than the deck of a 17th- or 18th-century sailing ship. Andrea Schmidt-Futterer's costumes play along with this motif as well, especially in the chorus, where the sailors arriving on shore and the maidens awaiting them look like they're ready to take part in an electrical conductivity experiment. The Daland character is made up to look a bit like a clown, and the Dutchman himself bears the pallid complexion and the dark hat and cloak of a witch rather than a sailor.

Still, both the men's and women's choruses do especially charismatic work, most prominently in the "third act" celebration scene that starts out so festive before an uncomfortable creepiness takes over. And, no surprise, LA Opera Artistic Director James Conlon masterfully conducts Wagner's overture, foreshadowing both the turbulence and the serenity to follow. There's only so much damage even a weird production like this one can do to a reasonably well-performed presentation of an operatic staple like the "Dutchman."

Matos is expected to return to the role of Senta this Sunday at 2 p.m. and in the remaining performances of LA Opera's "Flying Dutchman" on March 24 at 2 p.m. and at 7:30 p.m. on March 21, 27 and 30. Tickets start at $19.