When Julie Taymor staged “The Flying Dutchman” for Los Angeles Opera in 1995, it really did fly. Known for her extravagant visual imagination, for her puppets, masks and mime, she layered Wagner’s early, fantastical opera with ... well, you name it.
She gave the Dutchman, a cursed sailor wandering the seas in search of redeeming love, a double. During the overture, Taymor evoked the allegorical Wandering Jew (the legend upon which the opera is based) as an old man on a park bench who popped up now and then. She gave Senta, the Dutchman’s redeemer, a double as well. A nubile dancer dogged the steps of a large singer, symbolizing her adolescent, sexually awakening alter ego. With the help of choreographer and dancers, Taymor surrounded ships and sea with all manner of mythical creatures, water sprites that flew on wires and ghosts that haunted the Dutchman, enthralling puppet birds.
The production was not well received, and reportedly the cast nearly revolted. But for all that was irritating in her production, Taymor dared delve into complex layers of meaning in Wagner’s opera and created what, at its best, was a dazzling show. Thus, the announcement that Taymor, now a celebrity for her Broadway version of “The Lion King” and her film “Frida,” would return to Los Angeles to restage “Dutchman” with a distinguished cast was an exciting prospect.
Taymor did return to Los Angeles last weekend, but with other priorities. She accepted an invitation to stage a song from “Frida” at the Academy Awards ceremony Sunday, and was nowhere to be seen at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday night. The “Dutchman” was turned over to Vera Calabria.
At least there is still the marvelous George Tsypin set, dominated by a skeletal ship that looks like a Leonardo drawing come to intricate life as it breaks apart at odd angles and precariously hurtles an uneasy chorus. The Dutchman arrives in a creepy Scandinavian death ship, a decaying canoe carried like a coffin on the shoulders of ghosts.
Gone, with little regret, perhaps, is the Wandering Jew. Gone, with considerable regret, are the dancers and especially the flying. What is left is an incomplete staging and veteran Wagnerians who appear thoroughly thrown by the whole thing.
Illuminating musical direction would have helped. But Klaus Weise’s matter-of-fact conducting did little to convey either the supernatural spookiness of the Dutchman’s themes or the transcendent in Senta’s love music.
The orchestra played without character or sureness. There were violins in the pit during the overture, but I couldn’t tell that they were always playing. The balances were that bad.
Maybe an exotic, contagious vocal and histrionic virus found its way backstage. I don’t know why else such outstanding singers as Bernd Weikl (the Dutchman), Matti Salminen (Daland), Donald Kaasch (Erik) and Mlada Khoudoley (Senta) sounded uncertain and acted without conviction. Each had his or her magnificent moments and choppy ones. Each unpredictably wavered in pitch and tightened up at the unnaturally extreme pianissimo passages that Wiese called for.
Overall, Khoudoley coped best, especially when the Russian soprano presented Senta’s exalted final lines with spine-tingling radiance. But she turned Taymor’s original attempt to empower Senta into a nutty characterization, stomping authoritatively around stage. Weikl’s Dutchman, on the other hand, needed to be shaken out of his dopey stupor. Erik, a lumbering huntsman, had no idea what to do with the dainty bouquet he brought Senta. Salminen sang Daland’s genially lyrical lines in uncharacteristic spurts and sputters.
Little went right. The chorus clearly did not enjoy maneuvering around the set. Only its drunken carousing in the last act was convincing, but the contrapuntal off-stage chorus of the Dutchman’s crew was practically inaudible.
And then there was an outright mishap. A curtain stuck in Act 2. It was not a big deal and could easily have been ignored. But it became comical when a stagehand tried to fix it in the middle of the act. When that didn’t work, another crawled on stage in the shadows like a large rodent just at the most magical moment in the Dutchman-Senta duet. His only success was in destroying the mood.
A few bits of the original production did remain: the women wearing boat headdresses who accompanied the Dutchman’s crew and the bird puppets. But without further mythical context, they were out of place (and stiffly presented). Two company regulars, Greg Fedderly and Suzanna Guzman, reprised their small roles of the Steersman and Mary, and only they sounded and looked as though they belonged in this production. Constance Hoffman’s costumes and Paul Pyant’s lighting lost some of their earlier magic.
Taymor’s productions are individual and special. It is not practical, and may not be possible, to remount them without her. So blame the Oscars. Have Disney and Miramax snared yet another great artist away from her higher calling?*
‘The Flying Dutchman’
Where: Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: Wednesday, Sunday, April 2, 6 and 8, 7:30 p.m.; April 12, 1 p.m.
Price: $30 to $170
Contact: (213) 365-3500