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Symphony plays up a storm in powerful 'Flying Dutchman'
Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
Friday, June 13, 2003
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URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2003/06/13/DD301977.DTL&type=music

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In their own quiet way, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony have established a first-rate alternative opera house in Davies Symphony Hall, just across Grove Street from the War Memorial.

Actually, not so quiet. The excellent semi-staged performance of Wagner's "Flying Dutchman" that opened the "Innocence Undone" June festival Wednesday night was notable for its superb singing, its cohesive orchestral playing and its resourceful theatricality.

Mostly, though, it was striking for its sheer power.

In the Symphony's first attempt at Wagner's ghostly tale of love and redemption, Thomas adopted a high-impact approach marked by restless, almost impulsive tempos and plenty of instrumental sturm und drang, and the cast followed suit.

The result was a "Dutchman" as tempestuous and explosive as anything you'd witness in a fully staged account. Whatever theatrical immediacy was lost by the concert-style setup -- with the orchestra on the main stage and the singers using various parts of the terrace -- was more than made up for by the vibrancy of the performance itself.

Thomas has never been a particularly devoted interpreter of Wagner's music, but the reservations he has expressed on other occasions were kept well under wraps here. And his evident intention to keep exploring the operatic repertoire without having to deal with the compromises and headaches of an actual opera house continues to bear fruit.

The Symphony musicians, lighting into this ferocious score for the first time, sounded well-rested after their recent European tour and pumped up for the new challenge. There were a handful of exposed bobbles from the brass, but otherwise this was a swift and stellar performance.

Just as remarkable was the achievement of Vance George's Symphony Chorus, which sang with remarkable cogency and spark. The men brought vigor and a certain drunken freedom to the sailors' choruses in the two outer acts, and the women's Spinning Chorus in Act 2 fairly sparkled with the mechanical intensity of the writing.

Director Peter McClintock made canny use of the limited playing space available, deploying his performers in a series of crow's nests surrounding the stage. The stage design by David Finn and Daniel Hubp consisted of a few handsomely stylized sails (one of them doubling as a projection screen for the supertitles) and some well-chosen lighting effects that underscored the drama's key moments.

The cast seemed intent on bringing dramatic grandeur to the proceedings, and all were well-equipped to do it.

The finest contribution of the evening was the incisive and forceful singing of baritone Mark Delavan in the title role, marked by brooding intensity and rich vocal coloration. His first monologue, "Die Frist ist um," was chilling in its emotional power and tonal clarity, and his presence continued to dominate the performance.

He was well matched, though, by the extraordinary Danish bass Stephen Milling as Daland, the covetous sea captain who gives his daughter in marriage for a handful of trinkets. Milling, who is due at the San Francisco Opera in November to sing Philippe II in Verdi's "Don Carlos," boasts a voice of immense proportions, and he uses it with tact, subtlety and imagination; his singing was both potent and transparently fine.

As Senta, soprano Jane Eaglen had to wait until after an unnecessary intermission to make her first appearance (why the Symphony doesn't perform the piece in a single unbroken span is a mystery). There were lapses of intonation here and there in her performance, but for the most part she sounded vital and strong, bringing gleaming tone to the Ballad and a tender vigor to her duet with the Dutchman.

Mezzo-soprano Jill Grove -- too rarely heard in these parts -- was a wonderful Mary, full of vocal heft and sardonic wit. As Erik, Mark Baker's tenor sounded a bit beefy, getting through the part well enough but missing some of its lyricism and grace. Eric Cutler, though, was a lovely, youthful Steersman.

San Francisco Symphony: Wagner's "Flying Dutchman" plays four more times through June 21. The "Innocence Undone" festival continues through June 22 with vocal soloists Laura Claycomb, Ute Lemper and Hudson Shad. Tickets: $29- $97. Call (415) 864-6000 or go to www.sfsymphony.org.

E-mail Joshua Kosman at jkosman@sfchronicle.com.

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