Once again, operagoing in and around Los Angeles has become pleasurable, even thrilling. The turnaround came this week, not with the gloom-beset L.A. Opera at the Music Center, but a worthwhile hour’s drive further south, where a mostly superb singing ensemble, brilliant and incisive conducting and a gimmick-laden staging that now and then almost made sense brought Richard Wagner’s “Dutchman” into port under full sail.
Shortest and most ear-friendly of Wagner’s momentous music dramas, “Dutchman” nevertheless tends to lure stage directors into rough waters, from Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s much-booed surrealist San Francisco staging in the 1970s to Julie Taymor’s 1995 fling in Los Angeles that included a ballet for dress dummies. In his Opera Pacific debut, British director Keith Warner has seen the work as a kind of dream-within-a-dream.
His stage set, a vast open space instantly transformable by lights and scrims from a spook-infested shipboard to dowdy dwelling, heightens the unreality. At one memorable moment, the floor splits apart and the Dutchman’s ghostly, ghastly sailors rise up in a mighty swirl from diabolical depths.
His Senta, the sea captain’s daughter haunted by visions of the Dutchman whose curse she hopes to lift, is already onstage at the start, done up in a flaming-red cocktail gown of modern design, writhing and levitating, reaching out toward an image of her phantom lover. They finally meet, an act and a half later, but perhaps not. Now she sees him, now she doesn’t; he has a way of going invisible. Like most ghost stories, Warner’s contrived narrative overlay does burden the credulity at times.
There are no problems dealing with musical matters, however, from John DeMain’s surging, spirited leadership to the overpowering, immensely dramatic, ebony-voiced Dutchman of Mark Delavan, to the smaller-voiced but intelligent Captain Daland of Charles Austin and the Senta of Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet — all three in their Opera Pacific debuts. Everything worked: the interaction of the cast, the lusty, brawling choral ensemble, the harrowing D-minor billowings in Wagner’s stupendous orchestration.
Founded in 1987 by impresario David DiChiera as the Western outpost of his Detroit and Dayton companies, Opera Pacific has ridden its own rough billows in recent years, with its last artistic director, Patrick Veitch, hardly long enough in office to unpack. DeMain’s recently announced accession to that post — after 18 years as music director at the Houston Grand Opera and several guest stints at Opera Pacific — implies an attainment of stability rare in local operatic circles in recent months. It couldn’t happen to a better conductor, or a more promising opera company.