From TLD, Whole Number 21 (August 21,
A Clutch of Nettles
By Virginia Dare
Steuermann, lass die Wacht
Our guardian angels are able to take the occasional night off because situations that will cause us harm are very carefully barricaded and labeled with warning signs, indicators that tell rational adults with a decently ordered sense of self-preservation that we just shouldn't mess with that stuff. We go to the movies, and the monster is filleting and devouring cheerleaders, and when the dim blonde heroine has a fight with her hunk boyfriend and flounces out of the car and takes a short-cut through the swamp, we know that she'd better not go investigate that rustling bush. Bad situations wear neon signs reading, "Don't do it, you idiot."
Of course, we don't always read the signs, O Best Beloved. Sometimes, we even see the signs, weigh the odds, and figure we can avoid the rustling bushes and still get home without getting any mud on our shoes. Which, in an allegorical way, explains why Mr. Dare and I ended up in Baltimore in early May to watch the Baltimore Opera Company's production of Der fliegende Holländer.
Some opera companies have established excellent reputations as a consequence of their brilliant Wagner productions. Seattle put on a terrific Ring a few years back; and Santa Fe is still remembered with affection by opera buffs attending the outdoor production of Walküre, at which the wind shifted during Wotan's farewell to Brünnhilde and the magic fire went out of control, nearly barbecuing them both.
But good performances of Wagner are pretty thin on the ground, largely owing to the spectacular special effects called for by the composer. The average artistic director can manage a stylized swan or three, or even a dragon shapechanging itself into a mouse, but getting the Rhine to overflow its banks and swallow up the sacred mountain of the gods is a little tricky. The audience sometimes has to bite the bullet and try to get with the program. Wagner himself finally had to go off and build his own theater, after all.
Baltimore has reason to be proud of its cultural offerings; I love kicking back with a hot dog and a beer at Camden Yards. But if I were giving clues and prompts trying to get somebody to name the city on a TV game show, grand opera isn't one of the first five hints I'd use. Which leads one to ask, I guess, just exactly what I was thinking of when I bought the tickets. I'm afraid it was a classic example of misplaced optimism; James Morris, who may be the finest Wagnerian bass of our generation, is a native Baltimorean with a soft spot for coming back to the old stomping ground and doing benefit performances. And, alas, I have a soft spot for Morris.
I kept telling myself that with Morris singing the Dutchman, how bad could it possibly be. I clung to that hope even when, walking into the opera house, I was confronted by an enormous sign warning me that the production I would see included the smoking of cigarettes onstage. I couldn't figure out whether that was a warning against second-hand smoke (not a real personal hazard, since I hadn't wanted to invest a lot of money in the evening and had taken balcony seats), or an advisory that I risked offending my sense of political correctness.
Once settled in the rafters with my playbill, in one of the most tightly cramped spaces I've ever been poured into (now that, they should have warned us about), a real tocsin sounded when I read the article explaining the production designer's Concept of the opera. It seems that the Dutchman and Senta are nonconformists in a closed society. Well, one is cursed, and the other is crazy as a pair of waltzing mice, so OK, I guess they aren't model residents. And I suppose the production designer assumed that if you live in a village, you're the victim of rampant suppression. Anyway, after researching all sorts of closed societies and the way in which they might rise up to destroy the nonconformists within them, the designer chose the Shakers a voluntary society as the basis of his production. (I also remind the reader that the Shakers were not known for their coastal settlements; nor were they exactly famous for tolerating romantic involvements, being strictly celibate.)
Actually, I can't escape the suspicion that, in choosing the Shakers as the paradigm for the stage set, the designer was more concerned with bringing the set in under budget. I mean, come on, now, all you need is an empty meeting hall and a bunch of streamlined chairs and a row of pegs around the wall to hang stuff on, and you can spiff it up with a few ropes when it needs to be a ship, and make the audience do all the work.
When the orchestra began tuning up, my heart sank. The money the production designer had saved on a minimalist stage set hadn't gone into beefing up the orchestra. There simply wasn't enough of it to do justice to a Wagnerian score. Straining my eyes into the murk of the pit, I counted no harps and not enough double basses.
Still, this might be interesting: it probably wasn't going to be terribly good, but odds were it would get delightfully silly in parts.
The curtain rose on what wasn't a bad representation of a sailing ship, all things considered. Dalend and the sailor on watch are discussing the end of the voyage, and a storm is blowing up. Dalend lights up a (previously-warned-against) cigarette. I groaned. On land, OK; but not on the ship. Even Shaker sailors didn't smoke on shipboard. Wooden ships are caulked with pitch, and a flying spark could start a blaze that would send the whole ship to the bottom. That's why sailors chewed tobacco, and why Scandinavian sailors (Dalend and Senta are Norwegian Shakers, remember?) used snuff or a particularly nasty variant called snouse. The storm rolls in, an event conveyed to the audience by having the sailors stumble and fall all over each other and the deck, while sometimes clinging to a giant wheel in the center of the stage. You'd have thought that, after all those months afloat, they'd have gotten their sea legs. But never mind. The story unfolded until finally the Dutchman appeared on stage, and Morris's first note, as it were, blew the rest of the production out of the water.
One improvement that the Baltimore company had opted for was to restore the production to Wagner's originally conceived one-act opera. While that made for a long evening, it meant that I didn't have to unfold myself out of that narrow seat more than once. There's a limit to how many times one is willing to lose all dignity in front of a group of strangers. So as everyone made for shore at the end of what is normally the first act, the stage darkened momentarily, and the lights came right back up on something that looked like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
You'll recall that Senta and a group of her girlfriends and her nursemaid, Mary, spend their time spinning while their beaux are away. (Of course, Shaker girls don't really need beaux, since Shakers neither give nor are given in marriage.) The giant wheel at center stage was still there, and Mary, wearing pearls and a twin set and carrying a clipboard, keeps stalking around it, while a huge group of girls in modified Shaker outfits sit in chairs and perform, in unison, a strange set of arm movements punctuated with foot-stomps. I thought they were operating hand looms, and Mr. Dare thought they were operating manual typewriters with stiff carriage returns. Whatever the choreographer thought he was having them do, they certainly weren't miming anybody spinning.
Senta, meanwhile, wanders around the room in a sort of daze, schlepping a huge portrait faintly reminiscent of Edvard Munch's The Scream but without the charming insouciance. She hangs it on various pegs and takes it down and drifts in several directions at once, while Mary goosesteps around the room with her clipboard and the rest of the women, zombie-like, keep stomping and hitting the carriage return, until finally, thank God, somebody sees a sail, and they all run off to the kitchen to start preparing a celebration feast.
We were told in the program notes that the German Expressionism portrayed here and in what would normally be the third act allowed the production designer to "explore a society that spurns its artists and targets them as degenerates." ("There's a reason that we target artists as degenerates," whispered Mr. Dare. "They come up with crap like production 'Concepts.'")
The costume designer and the choreographer had apparently done most of their research for the production by watching other German-flavored musical productions (Shaker settings being a little scarce), because the sailors, in their happiness at being on dry land again, move all of Dalend's furniture around until the stage looks like a Heidelberg student dive and start banging beer mugs on the tables. I expected Edmund Purdom to come striding out in a Ruritanian military uniform and burst into Mario Lanza's voice. The little Shaker lasses come frolicking in with picnic baskets and slinky fluorescent green feather boas that were obviously knocked down in a sale lot after Cabaret was filmed, and proceed to do another foot-stomping number, this time trying to get the sailors on the Dutchman's ship to come over and party with them. Somehow or other, they all get caught in another storm so that they can get tossed into various walls and lose their sea legs all over again.
After Dalend announces that Senta is going to marry a Dutch sea captain she just met, Erik, her beau who should have given up and looked for a sane Shaker girl back in the first act blurts out something the Dutchman misinterprets to mean that Senta is no more faithful than any of the hundreds of girls he has tried to marry over the centuries. At this point, Senta is supposed to fling herself into the ocean to prove that she is faithful for life. Since the production budget wasn't able to spring for an ocean, or even a good trap door, she hurls herself into a crowd of sailors and Shaker spinning girls, who flail their arms madly to pantomime rolling waves. ("What are they doing?" hissed Mr. Dare into my ear. "I dunno," I hissed back. "I think they're beating her to death with feather boas.")
When the crowd backs away, Senta is sprawled over the giant center-stage wheel in a crucified pose, and the Dutchman and his crew (who had made a couple of brief appearances in a below-the-stage-floor labyrinth, decked out in black-and-white prison garb and decaying head-wrappings à la Beetlejuice) are nowhere to be seen. We're supposed to understand that their ship has sunk to release them at last but, instead, they're just gone.
And presently, so were we, after spending 40 minutes at the stage-door exit in a successful foray to increase my collection of opera programs autographed by James Morris, who continues to prove his graciousness by not moaning, "Good God! You again?" whenever he encounters me, pen in hand, after the show.
After a prolonged wait for a taxi, we flung ourselves into the back seat of the first vehicle we were able to flag down and told the driver we wanted to go to the Harbor Place Hyatt, one of the major hotels in the tourist center of the city. He didn't know where it was, but it took us a while to establish that, since first we had to settle on a common language. All this was taking place, mind you, at 30 miles per hour while the back door, which lacked a handle, flapped dismally open and shut until I finally lowered the window and, pulling on the glass, yanked it closed. (At which point Mr. Dare finally relaxed his anchoring clutch on my other arm.) The driver asked us whether we spoke French, and we replied that, no, we didn't; did he? No, he regretfully informed us, he didn't speak French, either. There was a minute of mournful, albeit somewhat puzzled, silence all round. By now, we were heading more or less toward the Inner Harbor, and we figured that if we kept on in that direction, pretty soon we'd get close enough to the hotel that we could dive out and walk.
The driver, determined to practice his English, asked us where we had been, and we told him we'd been to the opera. He became excited and positively chortled in his delight; he hadn't known she was in town! He proceeded to tell us about his great enthusiasm for and love of her, and eventually it dawned on us that we weren't talking about Wagner, or even Bizet. We'd found a driver who spent his leisure hours watching the talk shows, and it broke our hearts, to say nothing of his, when we had to tell him that she wasn't in town; she was still in Chicago, along with the last great Wagner production in this country.
The Hyatt hove into view, and after much pointing and gesturing by all of us we skidded into the entrance. The doorman handed me out and politely refrained from commenting on the condition of the door. I handed the driver the fare and a tip. "How much of a tip did you give him?" asked Mr. Dare. "Five percent," I answered. "I didn't want to encourage him to make a career of it."
With any luck, the Baltimore Opera Company won't, either.
Virginia Dare writes from the Old Dominion, where, informed by Southern civility and Shaker charity, she strives to think of the modern artistic idiocy as the Gift to Be Simple.
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