Der Fliegende Holländer
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In Review > North America

Der Fliegende Holländer

Ravinia Festival

JAMES CONLON CONCLUDED HIS DECADE-LONG stewardship as music director of the Ravinia Festival on August 15, with a superb account of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer —inexplicably, the opera’s first hearing in Ravinia’s Pavilion. There wasn’t a weak link in the cast. The work’s first stretch of extended solo singing falls to the Steersman, who potentially sets vocal expectations for what follows; no mean task, but Matthew Plenk met the challenge admirably with a lovely, youthful tenor of an intrinsically ingratiating quality graced with a firm, ringing top. 

The brightness of Plenk’s sound was then countered by the shadowy profundity of Greer Grimsley’s bass-baritone as the Dutchman. “Die Frist ist um” was expressively delivered in an aching, somewhat gravely tone that subsequently gave way to a full-throated sound of formidable amplitude and majesty. The second act duet with Senta was one of the pleasures of the evening, and at times found Grimsley sounding almost eerily like George London — a lofty comparison, but he deserves it. He was also an arrestingly imposing physical presence in formal tux with tails. Amber Wagner’s Senta was possibly the most beautifully sung and emotionally responsive portrayal Chicago has heard from this gifted young singer to date. The initial attacks on each strophe of the Ballad, where so many sopranos tend to scoop or spread, were nailed dead center with rounded, creamy tone and she soared exultantly above the staff in Senta’s final cries of “Hier steh’ ich treu dir bis zum Tod!” (a tricky moment in a role that hovers just above mid-range) without a trace of strain. This is one gorgeous voice. 

Simon O’Neill rendered Erik’s cavatina with plenty of manly, gleaming resonance, and drew a sympathetic portrait of what can sometimes register as a rather whiney character. The Daland was the excellent bass Kristinn Sigmundsson, who rendered “Mögst du, mein Kind” with notable warmth and authority. Ronnita Miller fielded a sympathetic, richly-vocalized Mary.

The CSO chorus was in predictably healthy estate, with special kudos for the men and their virile aural depiction of the sailors, both living and spectral.

Conlon had one of the best Wagner bands on the face of the planet at his disposal and it showed in a magnificent traversal of the score. Those sea sounds were beautifully rendered, and there was particularly thrilling work from the brass and percussion throughout. The reading initially promised to be of the expansive variety that focuses on the gravity and weight of the music; yet as emotions soared, the conductor revealed a plethora of dynamics in the writing and a quicksilver affective overlay to the love duet, though the elemental quality of the piece was captured to perfection. Once the applause died down after the final calls, Conlon delivered a charming farewell, thanking the CSO orchestra and chorus for their banner work during his tenure and passionately extolling the audience to continue their support of the orchestra at Ravinia. “And who knows,” he quipped, “Maybe in seven years I’ll come back to see if anyone has been faithful.” —Mark Thomas Ketterson 

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