OPERA REVIEW : A Wrong-Headed but Vivid ‘Hollander’

Times Music Critic

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle first staged--some might say perverted --"Der Fliegende Hollander” for the San Francisco Opera in 1975. A lot of Wagnerians were shocked.

Ever inventive, sometimes at the composer’s expense, Ponnelle decided that the central saga of the Flying Dutchman wasn’t central at all. Wagner was mistaken when he built his seminal music drama around the tragedy of the cursed sea captain and the woman who redeems him with the purity of sacrificial love.

The opera, according to Ponnelle, really concerned a silly little steersman. For reasons unexplained, the resident tenor thinks up the whole soggy story. In a nightmare within his quasi-Freudian dream, he doubles as the heroine’s prosaic suitor.

A lot of crimes have been committed against operatic nature in the intervening years. As seen at the War Memorial Opera House on Sunday, this “Fliegende Hollander” didn’t seem particularly disturbing anymore. It just seemed quaintly wrong-headed.


Ponnelle painted very pretty stage pictures. No one can deny that.

He conjured up a nice ghostly ship for a unit set. He made the winds rip, the water splash, the sails flap and the waves roll. He got his chorus to gobble up a lot of gutsily stylized action.

He played wisely with moody symbols and narrative props. He dealt knowingly in the artifacts of primitive horror.

In the process, unfortunately, he reduced the protagonists to shadowy figments of a nonentity’s imagination. He contradicted the musical focus, distorted the dramatic impetus and impeded the narrative thrust.


At least he offered the compensatory diversion of a flamboyant show. Ponnelle, whose death last summer deprived opera of one of its most stimulating and most controversial forces, had intended to return to San Francisco to personally oversee this revival. Perhaps, as was his occasional wont, he was contemplating some drastic revisions. We’ll never know.

In his place came a former assistant, Vera Lucia Calabria. She re-created the outlines of the boss’ original visions with apparent fidelity, for better or worse. Ponnelle’s concept remained irksome, but its execution was brilliant.

Reduced to the status of a hulking zombie, Jose Van Dam struggled in vain to dominate the action in the title role. He did exude a certain petulant dignity, however, and, despite lingering traces of a recent indisposition, sang with rare bel-canto sensitivity.

Wieslaw Ochman, the hero by default, found the lyrical utterances of the steersman more congenial than the would-be-heroic convolutions of Erik. Nevertheless, he sustained his double duties with apt concentration and a reasonable hint of expressive desperation.

Sergei Koptchak as Daland, the heroine’s greedy father, blustered about the multi-tiered deck with gangly bonhomie. Unfortunately, his warm-toned, rough-hewn, Slavic-edged basso encountered difficulties at both range extremes.

Cristiane Young exuded a stern maternalistic demeanor as Mary and sang generously when the line did not dip too low. The choruses, trained by Ian Robertson, performed with lusty fervor.

The once-crucial role of Senta was to have been entrusted to Deborah Polaski, Bayreuth’s beleaguered Brunnhilde, and therein lies a sad tale. Until recently, a great white hope among pretenders to the Hochdramatisch rock, the American soprano abandoned this ship after one performance. In fact, it is reported that she has abandoned her career. One hopes it isn’t true.

The ersatz Senta on Sunday turned out to be Sophia Larson, a young Austrian with imposing European credits. Tall and slender, she exerted proper erotic compulsion, and her histrionic credibility was further enhanced by her wise decision to forgo the awful tea-cozy costume designed by Pet Halmen.


Vocally, her performance was marred by a few strenuous top notes that fell short of the mark. Still, she sang for the most part with obsessive fervor and textual point. This was a promising debut under difficult conditions.

Jerome Kaltenbach, the rather unorthodox choice for a conductor, was imported from France. He enforced clarity, grace and propulsion at the expense of the young Wagner’s brooding romanticism. It was a legitimate, provocative approach, even though it invoked some suggestions of an Offenbach gone bizarre.

One left wondering how, and when, the nautical Dutchman will fly again at the opera by the bay.