Although Ravinia has hosted many Wagner concerts over the years, the festival has not presented a complete Wagner opera until now. With its concert version of Der fliegende Holländer, as the Dutchman proclaims in his opening monologue, “Die Frist ist um.” (The wait is over.)
Ravinia audiences will experience Wagner’s early masterpiece in all its musical, if not theatrical, glory when James Conlon conducts a concert version Aug. 15 of The Flying Dutchman, featuring the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (the latter prepared by Duain Wolfe), along with vocal soloists Greer Grimsley (The Dutchman), Amber Wagner (Senta), Kristinn Sigmundsson (Daland), Simon O’Neill (Erik), Ronnita Miller (Mary) and Matthew Plenk (Steersman). The program marks a valedictory for Conlon, since it will be his last concert as Ravinia music director, after 11 seasons in the post. What he will miss the most, he observes in a preview article published in Ravinia Magazine, is working with the CSO, which he regards as “a supreme orchestra.”
With The Flying Dutchman, he has chosen a glorious and imposing, but also sentimental finale. The opera may be new to Ravinia, but it is hardly new to Conlon. The maestro has already led four productions during his peripatetic career, over more than 30 performances. Given his imaginative, restless vitality, it is safe to assume that no two have been exactly alike.
Eight of those performances were at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, back in 1992. In the British magazine Opera, the virtual bible of the field, Martin Mayer called Conlon “the hero of the evening.” According to this critic, the Wagnerian achievement marked Conlon’s ascent to “the first rank of the world’s opera conductors.”
In his program notes for his 2013 production at Los Angeles Opera, where he also is music director, Conlon wrote: “The protagonist of The Flying Dutchman has led a long life of desperation, but thanks to Richard Wagner, it is not a silent one, for he leaves behind his song. His song is that of a figure who will be omnipresent in all of Wagner’s music dramas to come: The Outsider. … The Outsider is as significant in Wagner’s works as the plight of the tragic father in Verdi’s and the voice of outraged innocence in Britten’s.”
Conlon also comments on the role of the sea in The Flying Dutchman: “The power of the sea, in both its real and symbolic forms, competes for the status of protagonist. A perfect medium to express the tempestuous, oceanic emotions that characterize so many operas, it serves Wagner here as it will again in Tristan und Isolde as a metaphor for colossal emotional, metaphysical and erotic forces.”
Ultimately, the composer “casts the mythical dimensions of his protagonist onto a cosmic panorama. There is despair and desperation, but there is also devotion and that central theme to all of Wagner’s work: redemptive love.”
TOP: Detail of a poster from the Los Angeles Opera’s 2013 production of The Flying Dutchman.