Der fliegende Holländer

Robert Bolanek as The Flying Dutchman. All photos by Otak Jump.

Richard Wagner is most noted for his exceptional Ring Cycle, with over 12 hours of brilliant music spread over four operas.  But years before he embarked on his Unbearable-Lengthiness-of-Being-Teutonic mode, he had emerged as a force in opera, the most notable auteur in the opera canon, composing music and writing his own librettos.

His breakthrough came with “Der fliegende Holländer” (“The Flying Dutchman”) in 1843.  In many ways, it anticipates his grander work with the beginnings of his use of leitmotifs and rich orchestration that often imitates nature.  And while this opera is sing-through in format, its strophic lines repeat, creating memorable melodies.  Blessed with soaring romance-style music and a dramatic source from Heinrich Heine’s take on Celtic mythology (influenced in turn by stories of the Wandering Jew), Wagner produced his first operatic masterpiece.  However, he shifted the venue to a Nordic locale more compatible with his desired social iconography.  The composer was particularly empathetic toward the title character as he identified with the isolation and persecution suffered, creating a highly engaging opera centered on this desolate soul.

Salvatore Atti as Steuermann (standing, center), Joshua Hughes (far right) as Daland.

In this fable, The Dutchman is punished for having invoked Satan – condemned to sail a ghost ship on the seven seas eternally, except that he is allowed one port visit of one day every seven years.  If he can marry a faithful wife on one of his landings, he will be redeemed and granted amnesty from his perpetual purgatory.

West Bay Opera has taken on this piece with a handsome and successful production full of fine staging and strong principal voices to conquer the composer’s vocal challenges.  Wagner’s facility with orchestration comes through from the opening notes of the beautiful overture which reflects the resolute power of the sea and wind, while introducing the motifs of The Dutchman and his possible savior.

Laure de Marcellus as Mary (standing, in black), Meredith Bloomfield as Senta (standing, upper right).

Many stage offerings demand a dominant and charismatic performance from the central character to succeed, and this is no exception.  Even with this expectation in mind, the audience at opening night was blown away by Robert Balonek’s role debut performance as The Dutchman.  His 10-minute opening soliloquy “Die frist ist um” (“The time is up”) was delivered with such high-wire potency that one wondered how he could sustain the performance.  Even at full volume, he retains uncommonly crisp melodiousness and clarity of diction.  This, despite having to cover the Wagnerian bass-baritone range and tonal variety which he accomplishes with great agility. In answer to more intimate moments, he demonstrates another gear with a mournful, more cloaked vocalization.  Incidentally, he did maintain his vocal and emotional intensity throughout to give a remarkable performance.

Combined chorus.

At the time of the Dutchman’s periodic shore leave, he insinuates himself upon a ship captained by Daland, whose home is in a nearby Norwegian town.  The Dutchman is laden with riches, which he offers Daland in return for his daughter’s hand.  Joshua Hughes, a bass with warm tone and vibrato, portrays Daland.  His delight in the transaction is uncontainable in his fine duet with the Dutchman, “Wie? Hört’ ich recht?” (“Did I hear it right?”), which the contrasting voices handle to pleasing effect.

Daland introduces The Dutchman to his daughter Senta, who was already enthralled by the legend and image of the pelagic sailor.  Played by Wagnerian dramatic soprano Meredith Bloomfield, her first aria, the ballad “Johohoe! Traft ihr das Schiff im Meer an” (“There is a ship that sails the seas”) is delivered with meticulous authority, exquisitely negotiating its many vocal leaps and dramatic pauses.  Bloomfield also matches up well in the bombastic duets and trios with Balonek and clarion tenor John Kun Park as her betrothed, Erik.  Park also demonstrates great clarity and power in his angst over Senta’s betrayal.  Ultimately, the straight forward plot resolves in a transcendent manner.

Robert Balonek as The Dutchman, Meredith Bloomfield as Senta.

“Der fliegende Holländer” relies on only six principal singers.  The score presents an unusual bi-modal tessitura, as the two leads on the male side are written for low voices, but the female side is almost all soprano.  With fewer than 30 musicians, José Luis Moscovich’s orchestra admirably produces big supporting sound given its size.  Lack of orchestral precision that often occurs in smaller budget opera companies occurred more than desired, but not enough to detract from appreciation of the music.  Men’s and women’s choruses filled the stage while enhancing and rounding the overall musical sound.  The most satisfying outcome came when the men benefited from joining with the women in a combined chorus.

Director Ragnar Conde creates a satisfying stage experience. Company Set Designer Peter Crompton’s hand is evident in the production.  Central to his style are multilevel stages with steps, vertical framing fixtures such as columns or trees, and back wall projections which appear in all three sets for this production.  While the first act set is nautical with a profusion of ropes, the second contains an attractive array of spinning wheels worked by women at work with thread.  Callie Floor’s costumes also enhance the sense of place and time.

John Kun Park as Erik, Meredith Bloomfield as Senta, Conductor José Luis Moscovich in pit.

Overall, strong performances in key roles enhance the production and result in a rewarding experience.

“Der fliegende Holländer” with music and libretto by Richard Wagner, based on Heinrich Heine’s “Aus den Memoiren des Herren von Schnabelewopski,” is produced by West Bay Opera and plays at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA through June 4, 2023.

Let The Right One In

Diego Lucano (Oskar) and Noah Lamanna (Eli). All photos by Kevin Berne.

Some people would argue that one can’t reach potential unless willing to leave their comfort zone.  This reviewer has little taste for the vampire genre and less for violence, but what better time to break out of the shell than to witness a production of noted author Jack Thorne’s “Let The Right One In,” produced by the estimable National Theatre of Scotland and presented by the estimable Berkeley Repertory Theatre?

Let it be said that the opening night crowd, younger and more fashionable than a typical graying Berkeley Birkenstock crowd, fairly gushed at the performance, and most colleagues who I spoke with enjoyed it.  So, take this not fully enthused critique as a minority opinion.   The good news is that even a detractor can find much to like.  One particular strength of the play is that it opens many avenues for symbolic interpretation and post-hoc discussion, which is worth the price of admission.  Another is that the production values show well.

Jon Demegillo (Micke), Michael Johnston (Jonny), and Diego Lucano (Oskar).

Rather than a simple blood-sucking horror, the play focuses largely on the relationship between Oskar, a bullied teenage boy from a broken home with a drunken mother and a largely neglectful father, and Eli, a new neighbor – who possesses an androgynous look; acts mostly like a girl; but insists that she’s not a girl, with no further explanation.  Eli sometimes moves with tomboy athleticism and other times with the hunched wobbling of a grounded bat.  Of course, she’s a vampire and in this telling, without gender.  Despite appearances, Eli is several hundred years old.

Noah Lamanna (Eli).

For all their differences, the relationship between these two oddities can be seen as a teenage love story.  Another overarching theme is that of coming-of-age for Oskar, as he embarks on his first romance and screws up his courage to fight back against the bullies at Eli’s urging.  More broadly, the story signifies the pervasiveness of teen angst.  Finally, a strong undercurrent of co-dependency is evidenced, most significantly between Oskar’s mother and Oskar; Eli and “her” “father” figure/”boyfriend;” and the bully boys.

Erik Hellman (Kurt) and Diego Lucano (Oskar).

As vampire stories go, this one doesn’t particularly frighten, though one incident with sudden shrieking sound and bright light gives a shock.  And while the opening scene is gory and would seem to portend more of the same, the plot offers more intelligence and depth, dealing with numerous relationship clashes among the characters and suggesting the friction that we all confront in life.

Nicole Shalhoub (Oskar’s Mom) and Julius Thomas III (Halmberg).

A certain eeriness does derive from the staging, starting with Christine Jones’s scenic design.  Although most of the action could be presented in conventional homes, schools, and hospitals, Jones’s fixed stage consists of a forest of birch tree trunks shorn of all but stubs of branches.  This setting of nature’s overwhelming power induces a sense of tension and fear of the unknown crucible.  Moveable props such as a bed, a couch, or a steamer trunk are brought in as needed to represent interiors, but always with the foreboding forest as a backdrop.  A seeming anomaly in the forest is a large metal contraption that operates mostly like a jungle-gym for Eli but has a surprise and meaningful use near the conclusion when Oskar is trapped by bullies.

Chahine Yavroyan’s low lighting with generous use of spots adds to the unsettling ambiance and a sense of isolation, while Gareth Fry’s sound design also disturbs.  Director John Tiffany has integrated all of these creative elements into an effective whole.

Cast dancing.

So what elements might be less satisfying in this reviewer’s opinion?  As an action story, “Let The Right One In” lacks driving pace. Tension is allowed to slack too often, especially with the several choreographed dances, which on their own are very artistically designed and executed.  However, they disrupt the dramatic tone and impede the action.  Several main characters are teenagers, and they are played with teen affect.  While these depictions may be an appropriate representation of reality, the effect is that they give an impression of being less professionally acted and less convincing.  This is despite the fact that Diego Lucano aptly portrays the anxiety and gawkiness of Oskar, and Noah Lamanna beautifully conveys the contrasts and ambiguities of Eli’s bimodal personality – as an ersatz youth with a need to fit in as a human and as a voracious vampire with a need to survive.  Finally, there is no doubt that the author could explain how each scene contributes to the vital force of the narrative, but some appear to be a stretch and don’t add to the plot engine.  For instance, the candy store scenes may depict compassion and lead to demonstrating how vampires can’t eat people food, but they seem superfluous.  Oskar’s beating his father in checkers may demonstrate competitive dominance behavior, but it seems strange having Oskar as the dominator.

Julius Thomas III (Halmberg) and Richard Topol (Hakan).

All told, this play possesses an abundance of quality and some interesting aspects.  It will appeal to a broad audience that can appreciate the vampire genre being lifted to a higher intellectual plane.

“Let The Right One In” is written by Jack Thorne, based on the novel and film by John Ajvide Lindqvist, is produced by National Theatre of Scotland, presented by Berkeley Repertory Company, and plays on its stage at 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA through June 25, 2023.

Feria de Sevilla (Seville April Fair) – A Most Spectacular Festival You’ve Never Heard Of

Karin and Vic (the ones not in flamenco dresses – though Karin’s comes close) in front of the gateway to Feria.

As Karin and I crossed the Guadalquivir, our locum guide and host for several hours pointed down river and intoned – “The Gateway to America.” Indeed, all of Columbus’s voyages launched from this storied corner of Spain’s Andalusia. The riches from exploration, its own natural bounty, and the cultural admixture of peoples have resulted in a city of immense interest.

Feria from above.

Riding on a bus in Seville, we had struck up a conversation with a man in a royal blue suit – Carlos, a tall, gregarious 50ish man with a balding buzz cut above a big face with big smiling features and a belly that had seen too many beers. An accomplished classical musician, he was on his way to a repeat piano gig at the elegant and historic Hotel Colon (of course, named after Columbus). He invited us to stop into the hotel for a drink with him before our visit to Old Town. We agreed. But on arrival he found that because one of the world’s greatest bullfighters would have a splashy departure from the hotel to the Corrida (bull ring), that Carlos’s performance was cancelled, as the hotel arranged at the last minute to offer flamenco music. When booking our trip, we didn’t know of Feria, a one-week celebration of community and Seville’s history with livestock markets and flamenco that began in 1846. But when Carlos then invited us to join him in going to the fair, we jumped on it.

A cavalcade of horse drawn carriages.

Feria takes place one week in April each year on 25 urban blocks that lie mostly barren except for preparation and celebration of Feria. Imagine the value of the property designated for this one event. The fairgrounds are imposing. 1,200 adjoined casetas (literally – little rooms or stands) comprise the temporary buildings, owned by companies, families, and associations. The standard is maybe 10×60 feet, but important ones are several times larger. The fronts are open to the walkways and streets, and each has a gaily painted pediment. All 1,200 contain a rudimentary kitchen, bar, and toilet and are filled with tables and chairs for eating and drinking, except maybe some space given to live performance and guests’ dancing. There is also a carnival for action rides and gaming. Each year a unique gateway to Feria is constructed, only for the week of festivities. The hardy partying goes on until 3 a.m. or so.

Well-dressed visitors in front of several casetas.

Needless to say, thousands of people flock to Feria every day and night to join in the reverie. But what makes it distinctive? There are several things you will never see as much of. Scores, no, hundreds of beautiful black lacquer horse-drawn carriages of various designs ply the streets, carrying revelers. Several times as many horses as carriages will be seen – sleek, chestnut Arabians and sturdy, dappled white Camargues, all decorated, most with manes and tails plaited in knots – each carriage being drawn by matched teams of two to five horses. Plus, a large number of steeds are ridden independently. Many riders wear Andalusian caballero costumes – fitted, fully-buttoned bolero jackets without collar or lapels; riding breeches; and round, flat-brimmed, flat-top hats.

Karin with two riders in traditional garb outside the gates of Feria.

A vast number of females aged 2 to 92 are stunningly bedecked in a wild array of gypsy flamenco dresses, often doing impromptu foot-stomping turns with graceful hands reaching to the sky as they feel the music coming from the many casetas. Less thematically, and more surprisingly is when slews of teenage boys arrive in the early evening, attired in tight-fitting dark suits, solid white or light blue shirts, ties, and tightly-coiffed, brilliantined hair. What planet do they come from? They look like they’re going to a 1950s social or appearing on American Bandstand! In any case, a fun time is had by all.

Carlos was interested in the woman in red, but check out the boys on the right also dressed for the festivities.

Unexpectedly, Carlos took us to a caseta of which he is a member. He generously arranged and paid for a scrumptious repast of traditional fare – prized iberico ham (cured like prosciutto, but from special acorn-fed pigs), calamari (as fried seafood is de rigueur for Feria), and a breaded rollatini of meat and cheese. It was washed down with a pitcher of rebujito, a refreshing drink of sherry mixed with lime or lemonade. Thanks, Carlos, for sponsoring and sharing with us this unplanned pleasure.

Heavy traffic at Feria.

We also returned for closing night, when the crush of the crowd extended beyond the fairgrounds to both sides of the river. A glorious blast of fireworks at midnight marked the end of this year’s festivities. Disassembly of the grounds would begin in the morning.

Darkness falls and the real partying begins.

In our many travels, we’ve been fortunate to happen upon special events in numerous places – for instance both Kulturnacht and Oktoberfest in Stuttgart in one 24 hour visit. Feria was a similarly wonderful experience for us, especially because of being escorted by a friendly and knowledgeable local. It is recommended to all who can make it to Seville in this special week of April. Otherwise, this city rich in history is always a great place to visit, with the long, elliptical palatial Plaza de España; by some measures, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world; the gold and silver towers; an old town; and much more.