Music Review: ‘The Flying Dutchman’ at the McCarter Uses Video Projections

June 28th, 2013

David Newton Dunn

The Flying Dutchman Indra Thomas with Mark Delavan in this production at the McCarter Theater Center.

PRINCETON, N.J. — This is a plea to opera directors and designers working with projections: please, please keep them tasteful.

It is a request that will become only more urgent as a visual aesthetic immersed in digital media grows more popular. (It’s cheaper than building something 3-D.) The set of the Princeton Festival’s impressive production of Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman,” which opened on Saturday at the McCarter Theater Center, was dominated by three screens, a look that is no longer a surprise at the opera house.

Some of the images on the screens were striking: imposing brick dissolving into walls of fire; a realistic, rugged harbor in the driving rain. Once, the projected video panned to one side, giving the impression that the stage — the deck of a ship — was turning, an uncanny effect also used in Michael Counts’s projection-based version of Rossini’s “Moses in Egypt” for New York City Opera in April.

But some of the visual vocabulary of the Princeton “Dutchman,” directed by Steven LaCosse, with projections designed by Mark Pirolo and David Palmer, was unintentionally silly: a portrait ballooning in size until it loomed over the singers and, perhaps worst, the final image of a cartoon ship in the distance levitating into the clouds. (This accompanied the moment when the title character, a sea captain cursed to roam the earth forever, achieved redemption, in classic Wagnerian style, from the suicide of Senta, the woman who loves him.)

That the cherishable images outweighed the cheesy ones spoke to the production’s high quality. It is notable indeed for a small festival to take on an opera as ambitious as this, the first of Wagner’s mature works, and to perform it so credibly.

Some rough spots aside, the orchestra — conducted by Richard Tang Yuk, the festival’s artistic director — kept the infectiously propulsive score’s energy high. The chorus, physically and vocally engaged, was well prepared by Gregory Geehern.

The cast was strong. The bass-baritone Mark Delavan, whose impact had been diffused in the cavernous Metropolitan Opera as Wotan in “Das Rheingold” in April, had far greater presence as the Dutchman in the 1,100-seat McCarter. While his steady voice, more focused than resounding, remains basically small, and the character’s impassive resignation came through more clearly than his ecstasy or fury, Mr. Delavan approached the role with dignity.

More problematic was the soprano Indra Thomas’s Senta. Admirably committed, Ms. Thomas had the right wide-eyed attitude for the character, who oscillates between dreamy and hysterical. But while some of her phrases would come through with piercingly direct emotion, her voice was strident at its top and weak at its bottom, without the flexibility or power to support her acting choices ideally.

The smaller roles were well cast, with the bass Richard Bernstein a firm-voiced Daland, and the tenor Alex Richardson a sweet, agile Steuersmann. Best was another tenor, Jason Wickson, as a passionate, bronze-toned Erik. With his hapless love for Senta, Erik seems ridiculous in many productions, but Mr. Wickson gave him affecting seriousness.

The Princeton Festival performs “The Flying Dutchman” again on Sunday at the McCarter Theater Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, N.J.; (609) 258-2787, princetonfestival.org.

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