Virginia Opera’s The Flying Dutchman: Both Thrilling and Wildly Incoherent

These are my comments on Saturday (April 23) night’s Virginia Opera’s performance of The Flying Dutchman.  Notice I do not call this a review because I am not a qualified opera reviewer.  For a review by the Washington Post's Robert Battey, click here.  Nonetheless, I am a fan and have an opinion, and offer one fan’s opinion below, but first a few notes:

Note to opera fans: If you take away nothing else from this blog post, let it be this: attend the pre-opera talk.  The one last night was given by Dr. Glen Winters, Community Outreach Musical Director for the Virginia Opera (see his blog at and someone who can talk authoritatively about opera.  His comments gave the audience valuable insight into the music and story, and his sense of humor and ability to demonstrate his points on the piano made for an enjoyable pre-opera talk.  I am still unsure of the correctness of his well-rationalized thesis that Senta is an archetype for empathy that can save the world from its suffering or whether this opera was simply about Wagner’s longing for a woman who would remain faithful to him.  Pick one.  Back to my point, you simply will enjoy the opera more and get more out of it if you attend the pre-opera talk.

Note to Virginia Opera: record this talk and offer it to your followers; it is that good and that informative.  It will help people who are only able to listen to a recording of the opera.  In fact, offer these talks online days ahead of the performance. 

Note to all Opera companies: most pre-opera talks are in rooms too small to accommodate all the people who attend, and quite a few 50-70 year-olds are made to stand for 30-45 min or forego the talk altogether after having made the effort to get there.  Present these talks in a section of the opera auditorium.  Opera Philadelphia did this for a production of Cold Mountain I attended, and it worked fine. 


Liked:  Wagner’s expressive music is really another actor in the drama, or maybe is a substitute for the Greek chorus found in the ancient Greek plays.  Leitmotifs, short themes attached to characters or things, used by Wagner do help in integrating the music and drama.  His inventiveness in continually bringing these back in different ways in the music improves cohesion and is impressive.  This is one opera I’d attend just for the music.  I’m not an expert but certainly the conductor and musicians played well enough for me to truly enjoy the performance.  The orchestra was relatively large and produced a full sound.

Not liked: our seats were close to the side door and only seven or eight rows back.  Seated on our side of the auditorium was the brass section of the orchestra.  We definitely got the stereo effect, and Wagner uses a lot of horns, so the volume of the horns was a little more than desired in our spot.


Liked: Soprano Christina Pier proved to have a voice very pleasant and very well matched to Senta’s song.  Sopranos are my favorites and she was quite pleasing.  The women’s and men’s choruses sang well and brought a sense of life and fun to the drama.  I enjoyed the limited choreography, but it only hinted at what fun it could have been.  I would have been willing to stay and listen to some encores from the choruses.  One of my favorite singers was David Blalock, the steersman, a quite enjoyable sounding, if soft-voiced, tenor who provided some comic relief.  Peter Volpe as Daland had a good, clear bass voice.

Not liked:  Wayne Tigges gave us an imposing Dutchman and sang forcefully, especially in the second act, but for me, his voice was too low for the part, equaling Volpe in its bass-ness. Tenor Corey Bix sang quite well as Erik, but again it was a low-voiced tenor, almost baritone, that made him seem stern. 


Liked: Ms. Pier played her role reasonably convincingly, as did Mr. Volpe, who played his avarice in an amusing fashion.  The steersman was good in a smaller role. Rachelle Pike who played nurse Mary was also good, though her part got lost in the shuffle. 

 Not liked: Only in the later scene with Senta, did Mr. Tigges begin to convince me he was really experiencing heartfelt suffering; mostly he just appeared brooding and not at all sympathetic.  Mr. Bix gave us a clear minded, mature Erik, but I was looking for one that was a more youthful boyfriend experiencing a disturbed innocence. 

Direction and Staging

Aye, here’s the rub, and why I found it incoherent.  I accept the concept that opera goers should seek to engage in the fantasy and not ask for realism, especially for an opera based on myth; and the Dutchman requires more than its share of suspension of disbelief.  Nonetheless, the director’s and audience’s fantasy worlds need to be on the same page or at least overlapping; the choices must have the possibility of working for both parties.  Sarah Widzer, the director, and Symanietz, the production stage manager made some choices that took me out of the fantasy.  First, the costume for the Dutchman did not work for me and was actually a distraction.  The crew cut hair and tattooed, bare chest look with a cape drawn over the shoulders made me think he was on the way to a championship match for the World Wrestling Federation; no sense of mystery there.  Also, I thought the choices for the spinning room scene failed to convey a sense of routine.  Instead I was kind of fascinated by the dangling ropes, lots of possibilities there, and the women seemed rather supportive of Senta, rather than questioning her choice.  To me, it came off as a rather happy affair.

Then it got weirder.  We had been told by Dr. Winters that there was little love/physical attraction between the Dutchman and Senta.  She simply wanted to make the sacrifice to relieve his suffering and that was what he wanted as well. Yet, we saw them making nice-nice to each other in three different places on the stage in the last scene, including on a bed.  Huh?  Furthermore, I thought these efforts were more awkward than convincing, and convincing of what?  Then for the denouement, Senta offs herself by strangling herself with a ship’s rope while on her bed.  I suppose we were supposed to get the idea she hung herself since the rope was attached to the bed, but I was so looking forward to her jumping off the cliff, a much more dramatic statement for the Dutchman.  Finally, the light shadows showing Senta and the Dutchman's rise up to heaven wasted no time in their ascension and looked much more like Ken and Barbie than Senta and the Dutchman.  I might also mention the lighting because many times the singing characters were in the dark, presumably this was a technical issue.  

In researching the The Flying Dutchman, I ran across an article by Ann Midgette of the Post who commented for a different Dutchman production that directors should only include/not include spinning wheels (she happens to own a spinning wheel and uses it) or other stage props based primarily on whether it helps tell the story effectively.  I laud the director’s attempts to do this, making purposeful choices.  But for me, the direction and staging was what you would call interesting.  The choices didn’t draw me into the drama, rather they made me think about what was going on and what might have worked better for me.  It’s good to be the fan – and have the right to criticize but no responsibility for the production.  So, if you saw it, what did you think?

One unfortunate take-away from the performance is that there were very few millennials in the audience.  This is of special concern, given that this performance was on a college campus.  When I saw The Marriage of Figaro at the same venue, young folks were present.  Virginia Opera should consider presenting an offering each year specifically targeted to a younger audience.  Has anyone surveyed millennials to get their thoughts on opera?