This season The Princeton Festival has been presenting a wide variety of musical genres ranging from a cappella vocal jazz to chamber music to the Festival’s annual youth piano competition. There is only one major operatic offering this season, presented this past weekend with a repeat performance later in the festival. The music of opera titan Richard Wagner might initially seem a bit overwhelming for a summer music audience, but The Princeton Festival’s production of Wagner’s 1843 Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) was crisp as dramatic theater with musical emphasis on elegance, melodic solo lines, and the omnipresent brass which marks much of Wagner’s operatic output.
Performed in German with English supertitles at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, last Saturday night’s performance drew its six principal lead cast members from high places, beginning with the Metropolitan Opera. Both principal male characters were sung by Met regulars; baritone Mark Delavan and bass Richard Bernstein took charge of their roles and the tension between their characters with clear vocal and dramatic strength clearly gained from years on opera’s major stages. Much of this opera revolves around the sea, and as the Norwegian sea captain Daland, Mr. Bernstein vocally rolled with the undulating orchestral accompaniment and visual effects of the tossing waves. Looking sufficiently bedraggled for being eternally at sea, Mr. Delavan’s “Flying Dutchman” conveyed a range of emotions, both plaintive and foreboding, as he sought to break the curse of endless wandering on the ocean seeking the love of his life. Like the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, Mr. Delavan’s Dutchman was on a mission, the roots of which were clearly not of this earth.
Soprano Indra Thomas may not be singing at the Met at this time, but that is likely in her future. Philadelphia audiences have long known how amazing Ms. Thomas is as a singer and the sold-out house at McCarter clearly recognized her vocal powers and range of emotions in her role as Daland’s daughter Senta. From her dreamy presence among her fellow spinning girls to her final leap into the ocean to join her beloved Dutchman, Ms. Thomas produced an incredible amount of sound with very little effort and exhibited the ability to change musical expression and mood on a dime in this demanding role.
Two stand-out tenors were Jason Wickson, singing the role of the huntsman Erik and Alex Richardson as Daland’s steersman. Mr. Richardson set the stage well for the arrival of the Dutchman’s “phantom” ship with a lyrical and appealing voice, and Mr. Wickson definitively proclaimed his love for Senta in a passionate and richly musical soliloquy. Rounding out this very solid cast was mezzo-soprano Dana Beth Miller, keeping the spinning girls in line with rich vocal tones, maternal instinct, and toughness. The six principals of this opera were well supported by large choruses of sailors and spinning girls who provided full and solid choral accompaniment for the large ensemble scenes.
Although the cast was listed as only eight principal roles, there were two other “characters” with significant impact on the production — the Princeton Festival Orchestra and the technology employed to bring Wagner’s libretto and music to life. Conductor Richard Tang Yuk cleanly led an orchestra which showed exact playing from the crisp horn call which opened the overture. Throughout the long introduction to the first act, Mr. Tang Yuk kept the music rolling along, bringing out the early 19th-century classicism and refinement. Elegant wind and brass solos recurred throughout the opera, including from hornist Karen Schubert, oboist Geoff Deemer and English hornist Evan Ocheret. With rich lower strings capturing the mood of the sea topped by a graceful harp, the Festival Orchestra captured the nuances of the story (especially with Senta’s passages echoed by oboe) and never overpowered the singers.
Technology has revolutionized operatic production with the capabilities of visual effects on flat screens, and designers Marc Pirolo, Norman Coates, and David Palmer created innovative and at times spell-binding visuals to absorb the backdrops of the stage. The sea undulated, clouds floated by and The Dutchman’s vessel arose as a ghost ship from the bottom of the sea. Lighting changes matched the moods of the story, and this ability to successfully combine film and live opera enhanced the audience’s experience considerably.
This opera was a major undertaking for The Princeton Festival — somewhat off the beaten repertory track and requiring a depth of vocal talent which surely was a huge financial investment. The house was close to sold out on Saturday night, showing that perhaps Wagner can have a home in Princeton after all.