The overture to Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) sometimes contains a clue to how the opera’s final moments will be staged. As usually played, the overture departs from its prevailing sternness to end, in a transcendent moment of serenity, with the “redemption” theme. This alteration, which also necessitates a corresponding change to the conclusion of the opera, was made for three concert performances of the overture in Paris in 1860—years after the opera’s 1843 premiere but just shortly after Wagner completed Tristan und Isolde. In the spirit of Tristan, Wagner supplied Holländer’s finale with a new musical analogue to accompany the pre-existing stage direction that images of the Dutchman and Senta appear in the heavens. He thus gave musical confirmation to something already visually apparent: Senta’s love for the Dutchman breaks the curse that has condemned him to endless seafaring.
Modern stage directors, however, have stood Wagner’s intent on its head: since the redemption theme doesn’t occur in the original overture and ending, they seem to believe that making use of the original authorizes them to cook up whatever ending they want. So when the sounds of the overture’s original ending filled the Crosby Theatre at David Alden’s production for Santa Fe Opera, something seemed to be afoot, and indeed it was: at the opera’s end, instead of throwing herself into the sea, Senta remained center stage, bound by nautical ropes that prevented her from making her ultimate redemptive sacrifice. There were no images of her or the Dutchman in the heavens. But a girl carrying a book—whom we saw during the overture as a representation, presumably, of the young Senta—returned to personify a new generation of young girls fatally attracted to the Dutchman legend. The Dutchman, meanwhile, is doomed to plow the sea for eternity, now bereft even of the hope that the redemptive love of a woman will end his ordeal.
In Alden’s cynical view of Holländer, romanticism is replaced by a half-baked critique of contemporary capitalism—hardly a novelty in today’s operatic world. The Dutchman’s ship, in the murky darkness, is piled with boxes and looks like a cargo ship. Promptly upon coming ashore, the Dutchman is outfitted with a desk and other office accoutrements. In an interview with a local news outlet, Alden characterized the Dutchman as a maritime counterpart of Elon Musk: both are “monster industrialists” who “enslave” workers and “destroy the environment.” It doesn’t seem to have bothered Alden that it might be difficult to run an industrial empire if one is permitted to go ashore only once in seven years. Or, more to the point, Alden doesn’t seem to recognize that the Dutchman is no longer interested in material wealth. Indeed, Alden has stripped him of his tragic dimension.
The Dutchman’s status as a tycoon helps to explain the setting of Act II in an underground industrial facility in which Senta and her companions, wearing yellow protective uniforms designed by Constance Hoffman, toil amidst massive pipes. Paul Steinberg’s basic set, made seemingly of wood, showed its versatility by also doubling in Act I as the bridge of the ship captained by Senta’s father, Daland, and as the hall in which festivities take place in Act III (before matters turn tense). One item of décor that was especially prominent was an enormous metal cogwheel, which served as a none-too-subtle embodiment of a cliché about an individual’s relative unimportance.
Nicholas Brownlee sang the Dutchman with a strong, handsomely focused bass-baritone and showed a thorough command of the role. His opening monologue, “Die Frist ist um,” was especially compelling. Not surprisingly, the image he struck as a tired businessman proved disconcerting. But his singing consistently verged on or attained a gloomy intensity that, however suitable to some aspects of the Dutchman’s nature, became less effective and made one wish for more variety in expressing the character’s “otherness.”
Elza van den Heever, who sang Senta at the Metropolitan Opera in May and June, reprised the role here. The beauty of her bright, clear soprano was a pleasure to experience, but the misgivings I had about her performance at the Met, particularly regarding her lack of ideal vocal weight for the role, were also evident here, as were moments of apparent vocal discomfort. Her long Act II encounter with the Dutchman failed to generate much chemistry, although Alden deserves some of the blame for that.
Morris Robinson’s big, orotund bass served Daland’s music handily, but in the final phrase of his aria, “so ist sie treu” (as she is true), he took an ungainly breath between “ist” and “sie,” then proceeded to hold the last note much longer than Wagner specifies. Chad Shelton sang handsomely and with due ardor as Senta’s jilted lover, Erik. The rising young German conductor Thomas Guggeis, who also oversaw the recent Met performances, led an energetic if rather loud performance. Unfortunately, the same cuts made at the Met were repeated here. In an age when many, perhaps most, performances of Der fliegende Holländer are performed, in accordance with Wagner’s original intent, without intermission—an awfully long sit—Santa Fe reminds us that the composer provided an alternative version with breaks between acts, which the company availed itself of by taking an intermission between Acts II and III.