Can opera in concert ever be as exciting as a fully staged production? Despite popular wisdom to the contrary, the answer was an unqualified yes Wednesday night at Davies Symphony Hall, as the San Francisco Symphony unveiled a riveting, semi-staged concert version of Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman."
Led by Michael Tilson Thomas and featuring a roster of vocal soloists that included baritone Mark Delevan in the title role and soprano Jane Eaglen as Senta, the production was as brilliantly musical and as dramatically urgent as any witnessed on Bay Area opera stages this season.
Wednesday's performance, which repeats Sunday, Thursday and June 21, was a magnificent opener for the symphony's two-week June festival, which is devoted this year to Wagner, Weill and a handful of other German composers.
Organized under the title "Innocence Undone" (which prompted one music lover to wonder if there was a tie-in with Victoria's Secret), the festival will also include a program featuring songs by Wagner, Schoenberg, Ernst Toch and Paul Hindemith, sung by soprano Laura Claycomb (tonight), and Weill's "The Seven Deadly Sins," featuring German chanteuse Ute Lemper (Friday and June 22).
The idea is to trace an evolution from German Romanticism to Modernism, and "Dutchman" launched the journey in vibrant style.
Director Peter McClintock, whose staging of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Mlada" was the highlight of last year's S.F. Symphony Russian Festival, created an even more streamlined production this time around. The stage was rigged with five large canvas "sails" (one of which doubled as a super-title screen), and the singers were positioned above and around the orchestra on a series of platforms suggesting a ship's prow, Daland's house and the rocky coast of Norway. The designs of David Finn and Daniel Hubp were always effective, particularly in the lighting that was key to creating the opera's turbulent atmosphere.
Unfettered by any overreaching directorial "concept," Wagner's tale of a ghostly seafarer who sails the world in search of perfect love unfolded on its own gloriously Romantic terms. Tilson Thomas and the orchestra shaped the music with fierce energy and focus, with the conductor urging the orchestra on to one of its finest performances of the season; this was the first complete S.F. Symphony performance of this score, and it made one wish the symphony would give Wagner's music a much more prominent role on subscription concerts.
Of course, those concerts wouldn't have Eaglen, whose performance as Senta was nothing short of triumphant. The English soprano, who made an indelible impression as Brunnhilde in the San Francisco Opera's "Ring" festival four years ago, was in her element Wednesday. Combining superhuman vocal power, radiant tone, unerring pitch and dramatic intelligence, she gave a stellar performance, elevating the girlish Senta to the level of tragic heroine.
Delevan, a former San Francisco Opera Adler fellow, infused the title role with animal magnetism, eloquent vocalism and a palpable sense of mystery. His first aria, "Die Frist ist um," revealed a power and potency that gathered in strength as the evening progressed.
Tenor Eric Cutler was an appealing Steersman, Jill Grove was an eloquent Mary, and bass Stephen Milling was a robust Daland. Mark Baker's Erik struggled with the role's vocal demands without completely running aground.
Vance George's S.F. Symphony Chorus seemed to be having a whale of a time, spinning diligently as Senta's neighbors, carousing prodigiously as sailors and filling the hall with sound that was both astonishingly large and beautifully refined.