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Plain sailingfor Flying Dutchman

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2012-04-06 11:12

Plain sailingfor Flying Dutchman

A scene of The Flying Dutchman. [Photo provided to China Daily]

There was a palpable frisson of astonishment in the audience when the phantom ship glided from backstage and almost protruded into the orchestra pit. Yes, it was enabled by stage wizardry, but the size of the prop ship bespeaks the music.

The Flying Dutchman is the National Center for the Performing Arts' (NCPA's) first outing in Wagner territory, and even the set is Wagnerian. On April 3, NCPA opened its new opera season with this new production. Coincidentally, it is also the first salvo in the nation's celebration of the German composer's 200th birthday, which will come in 2013.

For a layman, NCPA's set alone is reason enough to see the Dutchman. Designed by William Orlandi, it is very realistic. Unlike most stage ships, the two in the NCPA production can swing and even rock with a heightened passage in the music. Sergio Metalli's projection design adds a backdrop of roaring (or calm) waves.

At the heels of his ecstatically received Tosca for NCPA, director Giancarlo del Monaco offers his second staging for the NCPA. His combination of traditional Realism and high-tech stage maneuvering fits the Chinese sensibility to a tee in the sense that both opera buffs and novices will find something to relish.

Plain sailingfor Flying Dutchman

Like New York's Metropolitan Opera, NCPA's Opera House is perfect for extravaganzas that are aesthetically conservative but have great mass appeal. Even Peking Operas that used to survive on one table and two chairs as a full set receive a luxurious makeover - to cater to those who are pampered by today's epic films and television galas.

Musically, NCPA has grown steadily in its three-year history. It started with Puccini, graduated to Verdi and has finally reached Wagner - arguably the zenith of romantic opera. For The Flying Dutchman, Lu Jia conducts with assurance and the NCPA orchestra plays with passion and gusto. The NCPA chorus under chorus master Valentin Vassile has never sounded better.

As usual, two casts rotate in the principal roles. For the April 3 premiere, German baritone Thomas Gazheli cut a suave figure, singing with dramatic power and acting with minimal movement yet with total conviction. His agony and his pursuit of love are larger than life, yet have no lack of subtlety. He is one Dutchman to cherish.

Danish soprano Eva Johansson has a steely voice that cuts through dense orchestrations. Her portrayal of Senta has an equal amount of infatuation and madness, which, if you come to think of it, runs through most female roles of the Wagner canon.

The rest of the cast delivered admirable performances, with the exception of tenor Philip Webb, who seemed to be under the weather on opening night.

The Flying Dutchman runs from April 3 to 8. But rest assured, it will be revived pretty soon and pretty regularly.