Times Music Critic

"Der Fliegende Hollaender" must be the easiest, the most accessible, the most lyrical, the lightest of Richard Wagner's heavyweight music dramas. Nevertheless, it is something of a stretch for the San Diego Opera.

Saturday night at the Civic Theatre, the San Diegans made a noble effort to rise to the lofty challenge. The assembled spirits obviously were willing, even when the resources of preparation time, manpower, finances--and imagination--were not.

Although the cast looked better on paper than it turned out to be on this nervous occasion, Ian Campbell & Co. did muster a potentially appropriate collection of singing actors. In this age of Wagnerian compromise, that is saying something.

"Der Fliegende Hollaender," unfortunately, requires far more than nice faces, healthy voices and eager attitudes. It demands pervasive sweep, urgency and conviction. It demands a heroic orchestra. It requires a sympathetic fusion of musical and theatrical impulses.

In these crucial areas, the San Diegans tended to settle for poses and approximations, not to mention half-hearted distortions in the dubious name of novelty.

The problems began with the drama. Instead of retelling the mythological tragedy of the Flying Dutchman and his agonizing salvation through love in a wholly traditional manner, Bernd Benthaak, the German stage director, and William Gorgensen, the local designer, toyed with trivial reinterpretation.

They moved the action from a vague and distant past to Wagner's day, for no apparent reason and--thanks to the grab-bag costumes--with no apparent consistency.

The imposition of a comfy bourgeois milieu transformed the crusty captain Daland into a waistcoated businessman, the hysterical hunter Erik into a prissy banker, the passionate maiden Senta into an eccentric young matron. So much for appearances.

Ignoring the composer's elemental setting, Benthaak and Gorgensen created a fussy, semi-realistic pier instead of the prescribed rocky inlet for Act One. Making vocal life miserable for the resident baritone and bass, they placed much of the action high up on an acoustically disastrous bridge.

In Act Two, Daland's living room resembled a cheap, dull brown box. During the love duet, its wrinkled walls became conveniently translucent to reveal a quaint, all-purpose abstract glow.

The denouement was performed not on a jagged coastal cliff but within the contradictory confines of a warehouse--a warehouse outfitted with a convenient row of picture windows. At the outset, the windows afforded views of the crimson sails adorning the Dutchman's ship plus a Grand Guignol gallery of its inhabitants. Later, the same windows provided the self-sacrificing Senta with an awkward venue for her suicidal leap.

None of these silly liberties were, of themselves, cause for alarm, even though they did tend to domesticate the power of what used to be a bold epic saga. Wieland Wagner, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and Harry Kupfer, to name just three relative conservatives, have approached the same opera with far less reverence. They, however, did so--for better or worse--in inspired pursuit of a new, hopefully enlightening concept.

Benthaak and Gorgensen seem to have courted change for its own sake. Even more vexing, they have done so clumsily.

Vital musical impulses could have compensated to some extent for the visual muddle. The musical impulses, alas, weren't very vital.

Matthias Kuntzsch, a conductor imported from the German province of Saarbruecken, concentrated on speed and primitive effects. Given the flabby, feeble, accident-prone orchestra at his disposal, that may have been just as well. He did elicit some commendably lusty singing, however, from the macho men's chorus trained by Martin Wright.

Approaching the tragic, charismatic, possibly macabre attitudes of the protagonist for the first time in his promising career, Roger Roloff looked lethargic and sounded bland, especially when the line descended. This, obviously, is not a challenge to be conquered in one outing.

As his rival, Siegfried Jerusalem mustered considerable fervor and good bel-canto manners in Act Two. He all but strangled, however, on the high tenorial convolutions of "Willst jenes Tag's."

Kevin Langan brought amiable point and wit to the bluster of Daland, though his basso tone seemed strangely muffled on this occasion, especially at the top. Michael Sylvester dispatched the Steersman's ballad with muscular lyricism. Jane Shaulis was forced to reduce Mary to an ineffectual granny.

Under the circumstances, the evening belonged to Sabine Hass, the celebrated German soprano making one of her infrequent American appearances as the obsessive Senta.

She revealed an exceptionally bright, slender, deftly focused spinto that shimmered softly in the ethereal Ballad, pierced the thickest orchestral and choral fabric with ease and rattled the roof in the final, ascending apostrophe to the Dutchman.

She is, moreover, an ardent actress, a knowing stylist and an affecting stage presence. Remember the name.

The infernal, glaring, uncredited supertitles, incidentally, provided minimal plot clarification and maximal distraction. They also compromised the integrity both of the scenic design and the lighting scheme.

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