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Photograph by Pat Kirk

Sail Away: The chorus gets a serious workout in Opera San José's 'The Flying Dutchman.'

Wagner on The Rocks

Opera San José steers a course through a stormy 'Flying Dutchman' at the California Theatre

By Scott MacClelland

I WON'T soon forget Opera San José's blazing ride through Richard Wagner's The Flying Dutchman. The extraordinary video montage screened on scrim and backdrop, the pumped male chorus of sailors, the powerful little orchestra led with authority and insightful pacing by David Rohrbaugh and the set and projection designs altogether lifted the piece into a strange but memorable stratosphere.

Of all, however, the most indelible imprint was the Senta sung by the sensational Deborah Berioli. Hers is a voice with a big future, a warm, gleaming instrument that she uses with great flexibility, range and expression. Over this past season, she has only gotten better. If anything, this role showed her at her best.

As the Dutchman, opposite Senta on Sunday, was the formidable Joseph Wright, whose powerful, deep baritone was consistently conveyed with aristocratic bearing. The second-act duet between them sizzled with chemical energy and smoldering intensity.

Tenor Etsel Skelton was cast as the hapless Erik, whose suit of Senta is dashed on the rocks forever by her obsession with the fabled, now incarnate, Dutchman. Skelton's is a voice blessed with both timbral allure and ping, but he has proven stubbornly slow to exploit the drama of his roles onstage. He even allowed some roughness to intrude at the top of his range in his last-act final plea to Senta. Bass Jesse Martin, lacking the sound appeal of Skelton and mumbling his diction, redeems himself by what Skelton ignores: theatricality. Even while he tends to go over the top, he gives his performances a dimension that time has proven is largely missing from his colleagues. His Daland, in this case, acted more like a used-car salesman than an opportunistic patriarch.

Giulio Cesare Perrone's minimalist set design sought to reconcile the staging limitations—how do you get two fully rigged sailing ships next to each other suddenly?—with the video projections of Ethan Hoerneman.

Olivia Stapp's stage direction, with its Magritte surrealist features, seemed to pull in a third direction, and the physical interactions of Senta with both the Dutchman and Erik couldn't have been more unnatural to watch.

Michele Detwiler was Mary, and Bill Welch was the Steersman. The men of Bruce Olstad's chorus were boisterous and manly, the women (spinners) fresh and feminine. The supertitles translated the German concisely and efficiently.

Hoerneman's video projections became a major character of their own, for good or ill. He matched a montage of ocean, sky and storm footage with the entire overture, mood by changing mood. The wall-hung "portrait" that obsessed Senta in the second act was a projection that kept growing until it filled the entire backdrop and, in so doing, became a major distraction.

The projection of Senta and the Dutchman that accompanied Erik's dream description proved effective, though its gigantic images likewise almost made one forget the music. At the end, the return of the Dutchman's ghostly crew—the costumed characters rising from beneath the stage overlaid by a similar sight screened onto the scrim—was reminiscent of the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the most effective of Hoerneman's projections. Despite the symbolism represented by the sets and projections, the costumes were as the 19th-century Wagner might have imagined them. The lighting might have been more intense, but at the risk of adding yet another conflicting element.

Meanwhile, Opera San José has announced its 2005-06 season, including Robert Ward's The Crucible (after the Arthur Miller play), Verdi's A Masked Ball, Puccini's La Bohéme and Mozart's Don Giovanni.

The Flying Dutchman plays April 14, 16, 19 and 22 at 8pm and April 24 at 3pm at the California Theatre, 345 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $60-$88. (408.437.4450)

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From the April 13-19, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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