Under extraordinary circumstances, New York City Opera gave an extraordinary performance to open the season on Saturday afternoon. The company’s opening night was originally scheduled for Sept. 11, but the performance and gala were canceled in the wake of the day’s terrible events.
Before the curtain went up on the company’s new production of Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” on Saturday, cast and crew came on-stage to share a moment of silence with the audience and sing the National Anthem, instantly turning this early autumn afternoon at the opera into a deeply moving experience.
The stirring music-making didn’t stop at the last bars of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” fortunately. The orchestra, which rarely dips into Wagnerian waters, sounded consistently vigorous and inspired under conductor George Manahan, and the singing throughout was superlative.
Baritone Mark Delavan, a City Opera mainstay, gave a thrilling performance in the title role, creating an unforgettably desperate figure in his opening monologue, expressing the Dutchman’s rage and anguish with hair-raising power. The ghoulish makeup and black clothing helped to lend him an appropriately otherworldly air, but the sound of a tender human soul longing for rest and solace could be heard in his consistently sensitive singing.
Making her City Opera debut as Senta, the young woman inexorably drawn to the mysterious title figure, soprano Susan B. Anthony was equally brilliant. She sang with bright clarity and gleaming power in a performance that began at a level of coiled intensity and was sustained through to the opera’s last moments.
There was exceptionally strong support from baritone Kevin Langan as Daland, Senta’s perplexed but pragmatic father, and tenor Carl Tanner in the small but taxing role of Erik, Senta’s faithful fiance. Both sang with impressive polish and vigor.
Stephen Lawless’ production had its dubious elements, alas, including some stiff choreography for the sailors, clunky avian imagery and a distracting chorus line of female ghouls representing the specters of the women who had previously loved and betrayed the Dutchman. Giles Cadle’s set, featuring a trio of receding skewed prosceniums built of bleached wood, gave the stage a cluttered and somewhat oppressive look; the lonely and yet beckoning expanse of the sea, so powerfully present in the music, was just glimpsed through a porthole, so to speak.
But the music, of course, opened out onto deep vistas of human experience, and its surging romantic spirit, so powerfully rendered by singers and the orchestra, clearly had a galvanizing effect on an audience that rose to its feet in an emotional ovation as soon as the curtain fell.
This was that rare performance at which both audience and artists gave their all from beginning to end. An opera about the redemptive power of love became an illustration of the redemptive power of music, too.