Until its collapse into incoherence in the third act, the production of Richard Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman" that the Baltimore Opera Company unveiled Thursday was about as fine a performance as one can hear nowadays.
The dramatic burden of the "Dutchman" is carried essentially by the lead singer's ability to capture the torment of the accursed sea captain, condemned to sail the oceans until Judgment Day.
James Morris, who sang the title role, is without rival in terms of his darkly demonic timbre and commanding presence. And this great bass-baritone, now 51, still has a voice with enough youthful bloom so beauty of line is never sacrificed for forcefulness of utterance. He was rock-steady throughout all three acts -- a feat made more impressive because the opera was, as Wagner originally conceived, performed without intermission.
As Senta, the woman whose suicide saves the Dutchman's soul, Susan Marie Pierson was not as reliable vocally as Morris, especially in her top notes, but it is hard to think of anyone who sings the role better.
Paul Plishka's beautifully characterized Daland was full-toned and hearty. Chris Merritt as Erik, while scarcely subtle, punched out notes with enough passion to make the role interesting. Daniel Hendrick sang the Steersman convincingly, and Susan Shafer was more than adequate as Mary. The chorus' singing was firm and powerful.
There was also the energetic, but finely controlled, conducting of Alexander Sander. Despite a somewhat undermanned orchestra, the ferocity of the storm depicted in the overture, the vigorous opening of Act I and the ominous appearance of the Dutchman's ship were all superb.
So what went wrong with this production? Musically, nothing. But the conception of stage and costume designer Allen Moyer proved in the final act to be what could charitably be called crazy. What transpired was equally offensive to several ethnic groups, as well as the audience.
Characters suddenly appeared wearing "the green" in the form of armbands and making what seemed to resemble Nazi salutes. And the Dutchman's sailors, when they appeared to take their bows, were costumed as death camp inmates. This seemed as unfair to the Irish as to the Jews -- Ireland is the only Roman Catholic country that never had an Inquisition.
What the subtext was is anybody's guess. Wagner was notoriously anti-Semitic. The myth of the Dutchman is a latter-day retelling of the earlier myth of the Wandering Jew. But such suppositions scarcely support a conception nutty enough to include Irish Nazis and skeletal Jewish seamen.
And what about those Shakers? Daland's ship was designed as a large Shaker meeting house. Why the Shakers? Because, as a program note informs us, the stage designer "chose to concern himself with the destructive consequences of a closed society."
As fine, vocally and musically, as this "Dutchman" was, its denouement was absurd enough to make a listener pinch himself as he left the theater.
What: "The Flying Dutchman"
When: 7: 30 p.m. tomorrow, 8: 15 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Lyric Opera House, 110 W. Mount Royal Ave.
Pub Date: 5/05/98