“Dutchman” Flies Under Nezet-Seguin’s Baton

Michael Volle and Amber Wagner in the Met Opera’s production of Wagner’s “Der fliegende Hollaender.” | RICHARD TERMINE/ METROPOLITAN OPERA

The Metropolitan Opera proved a good place to be on May 4, at the third performance given this season of Wagner’s “transitional” opera “Der fliegende Hollaender” (“The Flying Dutchman.”) Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the youthful, out gay Canadian anointed as the company next music director, achieved fine results in the pit, approaching the score in terms of early Romanticism (Weber, Marschner, Mendelssohn) instead of as prelude to the darker, more harmonically complex Wagner to come. The orchestra clearly made an effort for him, and the playing was clean and propulsive.

One could limn a “deeper” interpretation of the music, but — barring genius singing actors in the two leads — this staging could scarcely sustain that. There’s little inherently interesting in what remains of August Everding’s 1989 production, here competently revived by Stephen Pickover, and both the Norwegians’ third act revels and the ghostly sailors’ response to them look pretty silly and unfocused. Still, Hans Schavernoch’s 19th century industrial sets seemed less oppressively dreary than I recalled, and at least there’s some contrast among the three acts.

Lore Haas’s very solid costumes supply some color. Gil Wechsler’s lighting plot, generally strong on atmosphere, made awkwardly old-fashioned use of follow-spots on the principals, even through the scrims in the outer acts.

Carnegie cheers for Oratorio Society’s Bach “Mass in B Minor”

The Hollaender was the highly accomplished German bass-baritone Michael Volle, one of today’s top choices in the role (and as Wagner’s Hans Sachs). He commands the style and phrasing and paced himself well through a conscientiously dark characterization. What he lacks, as when he played Mandryka in “Arabella” here, is much in the way of charisma, either vocal or visual. One appreciated his seasoned artistry but as a plausible object of an adolescent obsession he fell rather short; and his instrument, while strong and pliable, is not inherently memorable. Perhaps I have been spoiled for life by my first Met (and San Francisco) Dutchman, José van Dam.

The still-young Senta, Washington State native Amber Wagner, made people sit up and take notice. At the Met, she sang Anna in “Nabucco,” a water-testing, high-note supplying minor role, in 2011, with a one-off “Ballo in Maschera” Amelia the following year. Meanwhile, in Chicago, she’s done Elsa (very strongly sung) and Elisabeth, and she has also amassed European experience. Wagner’s instrument is appealing and refulgent, as if made for this repertory. She slightly simplified the superhuman demands placed on her by the slow section of the work’s transfixing central duet, “Wie aus die Ferne.” But better that than courting the disasters many other sopranos have endured there; and elsewhere she rang out confidently and sonorously. She seemed a nice North American young woman rather than a love-crazed Norwegian teenager, but the vocal contribution was pretty thrilling.

Daland got a lively, capable reading from Franz-Josef Selig, no longer ideally steady but still an apt bass for this particular assignment. AJ Glueckert, an American tenor active in Germany, sang the tough, not particularly sympathetic role of Erik very well indeed, save for one cruelly written high phrase near his third act plea’s end. He kept the sense of line the part rewards and so rarely gets. Ben Bliss, the Met’s current go-to tenor for youthful lyric sound, sang the Steuermann’s dreamy Act One ballad with memorably clean line and airy tone; the stomping-around drunk scene with the full chorus tested his dynamic limits more.

One sloppy touch in Act One’s direction: both Daland and the Steuermann have a double-take when they each see that a much huger ship has pulled alongside overnight — but when the rest of the crew scampers onboard for their rope-pulling shanty, none of them even registered its fearful presence.

Dolora Zajick’s aptly dour Mary — a new kind of assumption in the mezzo’s long career — sounded most like herself in the chested lower phrases, such as “Ich spinne fort!”

The male chorus performed extremely well, though when some of them were relegated to play the Undead in the Dutchman’s ship, the vaguely sourced amplification dulled the impact of their song.

In all, this was a happy evening, with high promise evident from Nezet-Seguin’s conviction and the vocal achievements of Wagner and Glueckert. Given Wagner’s popularity here and the fact that audiences will travel to see his works –– as they do for Handel, another fact that eludes the Met management — it seems odd that only five performances were scheduled. Let’s hope Wagner’s Dutchman visits these shores again before too many years pass.

On May 8 at Carnegie Hall, Kent Tritle’s Oratorio Society tackled one of the great choral works, Bach’s “Mass in B Minor.” It was a stirring performance, though at times the choral sound had less evenness than this organization usually achieves. Some of the attacks and cutoffs were precise and breathtaking; yet sometimes Tritle’s unfashionably slow tempos in the more contemplative choral numbers yielded a certain amount of flatting, particularly among the sopranos. The orchestral playing, on the other hand, was immaculate and stylish, with special commendation due the flautists and oboists.

The soloists were all musicianly and practiced oratorio singers. Leslie Fagan, reliably a fresh, bright soprano totally at home in this repertoire, met a fine match in tenor Lawrence Jones, a knowing stylist whose fine lyric voice has gained in power while retaining its shine and float. They sounded wonderful together in the transporting flute-accompanied “Domine Deus.” Fagan and countertenor Christopher Ainslie also showed fine sensitivity in the increasingly rare art of duetting. His timbre is to me not the most pleasing, but he projects the music well; Bach seems to suit him vocally far better than the Handel and Cavalli I have previously heard him perform. Baritone Sidney Outlaw sang smoothly, with a nice sense of detail; occasionally his arias lay a bit low for his best range.

Nice to see Carnegie so full of enthusiastic patrons cheering for Bach and his interpreters.

David Shengold (shengold@yahoo.com) writes about opera for many venues.