Wagner and Lyric Opera have a long and convoluted relationship. The company built its reputation on Italian repertoire and Wagner was always a relative rarity, given the cost and complexity. But when Lyric did Wagner early on, the very best artists were secured. In 1956, no less than Georg Solti led “Die Walküre” with Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde. Lyric’s future general director Ardis Krainik was cast as a Valkyrie.
Bruno Bartoletti, Lyric’s first music director, did some Wagner, but preferred to allow Wagner specialists to conduct at Lyric. Wagner’s grandson Wolfgang Wagner flew to Chicago to hear Christian Thielemann conduct a memorable “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” in 1999 after which Thielemann was asked to conduct the opera at Bayreuth. He would go on to become music director of the Wagnerian festival in 2015.
Andrew Davis succeeded Bartoletti in 2000 and a huge part of the allure taking the position was the opportunity to do Wagner at Lyric. Davis often conducted Wagner works for the first time in Chicago—including his first “Ring” cycle in 2005—but over time, he did manage to become a fine Wagnerian. Davis’ second “Ring” cycle was only three-quarters revealed over multiple seasons when the pandemic shut down the “Götterdämmerung” finale days before it was to have premiered in 2020 and the three complete “Ring” cycles that were to follow. (None of these have been rescheduled.)
Enrique Mazzola was Davis’ successor in 2021, and, of course, wanted to conduct Wagner but would be starting from scratch. Thus, rather than finishing the final “Ring” production—let alone presenting the entire “Ring” subsequently—one of the last and oddest artistic decisions of outgoing general director Anthony Freud was to go back to the beginning of the Wagner canon so a music director who is a Wagner neophyte can learn the repertoire.
How did Mazzola do? On opening night right from the familiar overture, there were issues of balance, an early entrance of the strings and a tentative “Dutchman” horn leitmotiv. When the curtain opened, the sailors were shouting so loudly that it was actually hard to hear the orchestra underneath them. Tempos were plodding all evening, an effect exaggerated by the decision to present the original one-act version, running nearly two-and-a-half hours without intermission.
Vocally, it was a rarity and a pleasure to hear a Daland (Finnish bass Mika Kares) and a Dutchman (Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny) that are vocally distinct in terms of color.
Chicago soprano Tamara Wilson certainly has the volume and the range for Senta; what was missing was the tenderness. Tenor Robert Watson was straining as Erik early on but grew more comfortable as the evening went on.
The decision to bring back controversial director Christopher Alden after a twenty-three year company absence is puzzling. With Alden, there is the tendency to superimpose ideas that work against the libretto’s intentions and distract from what the music itself sonically directs. To make the Dutchman a Holocaust survivor forgets or ignores the fact that he is doomed to the seas because of his own actions. For Senta not to jump into the sea to redeem the Dutchman obliterates the work’s message of love unto death and self sacrifice.
“The Flying Dutchman” plays through October 7 at Lyric Opera, 20 North Wacker. Tickets are available at lyricopera.org.