Flying Dutchman Transports at the Met Opera

Francois Girard in Top Form as Producer

By: - May 31, 2023

The new Flying Dutchman at the Metropolitan Opera transports.  Grounded shortly after its debut as the pandemic erupted in March of 2020, the cast has changed. Like many of the Met's new productions, singing is excellent across the board and gives great pleasure.

Francois Girard, a Canadian enfant terrible, produces. He has been cultivated for decades by the Met’s General Manager Peter Gelb. Girard is a man of great and varied gifts. He and Gelb, then a Sony music executive, worked together on a film about pianist Glenn Gould and also the iconic Red Violin, whose soundtrack by John Corigliano won an Academy Award. 

In Girard, we find a film and video artist who has embraced opera by bringing just the right cinematic touch.   Girard produced a stunning Parsifal, which premiered in 2013, and then Lohengrin to more mixed reviews in 2022.  (Berkshire Fine Arts admired it). If enjoying opera takes the suspension of disbelief when we enter a hall (in a way that film also does), it can take us out of time while continuing to root us in live music.  John Goberman  (Emmy-award-winning creator of Live from Lincoln Center) discovered a way to bring rootedness to film projections when he first heard Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky Cantata. He was struck by the poor quality of the film's soundtrack and the superior quality of the music.  

Goberman realized that he was seeing something very unusual on the screen, namely, “a film score that was not background music.  Prokofiev and Eisenstein together created something special.  The music is as important as the picture in Alexander Nevsky, and the way the film was constructed was based on that idea.”

In this new Met Opera production, Girard heightens the score with his real-time images. 

Thomas Guggeis, from Dachau, Germany outside Munich, is completing his final season as Staatskappelmeistr of Staatsoper Berlin. He is a Wagner and Strauss specialist.  The smooth delivery of the Overture, which continued into the main opera, matched the visual ambiance, and was crisply contrasted with the helden voices on stage and Elza van den Heever’s gorgeous tones.  While one would hope for more shaping of the orchestral internal phrasing, which gives breath and life to the music (and which the Met Orchestra does so well when asked to), the overall effect was rich and moving.

In 2012, we heard Matti Salminen do Parsifal in Budapest and two weeks later, Deland in Zurich. He was 67 at the time, a looming 6 foot five, and still of powerful and dramatic voice.  The Ukrainian bass Dmitry Belosselskiy, Deland in this Flying Dutchman, has some of Salminen's qualities in spades: carving sounds and coloring, along with the J.M.W. Turner-like images swirling in the background.

John Macfarlane, a painter himself, has provided the new Girard set, and it is wonderful.  Not only is Turner referenced in periodic drownings by light, but the heart of each scene, the huge boat commanded by Deland which smoothly sails in from stage right, and also the perfect strands of material descending from space, which are woven in the spinning scene, and then become trees by the waterside. Siegfried Wagner’s wife Winifred and her pal Adolf, who wanted nothing more than design sets at Bayreuth, would have loved this. 

The set is in two dimensions. Singers, bathed in spotlights and isolated, are the real world presence here.  And there is the mythical landscape, taking our eyes out of this world just as Wagner’s music envelops and transports the ear.

Eric Cutler as Erik, Tomasz Konieczny in the title role and Richard Trey Smagur as The Steersman all contribute mightily to the overall success of this production.  

We first heard Elza van den Heever at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. In response to her performance at Caramoor in 2016 singing Fidelio, this site commented:

“While the cast was superb throughout, Elza Van Den Heever shone, even shocked, as Lenore. Who could have missed Van Den Heever at the Frankfurt Opera house, and throughout Europe where she performs regularly? The Lyric Opera of Chicago cast her as Armida, the type of meaty role on which she thrives.  We wrote at the time: “She notes that in an aria like “Ah Cruel,’ where she is challenged to sing long, slow phrases cheek to jowl with the fast and florid, provides her kind of challenge. Van Den Heever is a first class actress. Dressed like Morticia, but in glistening red patent that catches light as she streaks across the stage, hands crooked akimbo, love cuts through her camp to move us.

“Now we see her plain, without makeup and in a trouser role.  All attention is on her superb acting and particularly the voice.  It floats totally supported by the breath.  Huge and resounding, it seems effortless to produce, although perfection often does sound deceptively simple. Not only did Van Den Heever put on a singularly detailed and satisfying performance, she also acted generously with all her partners, particularly Paul Groves.  Their duet which combines reconciliation and escape was very personal and intimate.  Only the human voices remain in all their glory, perhaps inspired by the clarinet and horn.”

Van den Heever's time at the Frankfurt Opera has been well-spent. While many singers are tempted too early by the big time, van den Heever has taken her time. The result is on stage at the Met Opera right now.  A not-to-be-missed performance by a glorious singer with a consummate stage presence.  

In Girard, the Met has found a producer who brings all the tools of the modern art world to the truths and beauties of ages past.