Ravinia’s “Flying Dutchman” Review – A Fond Farewell to James Conlon

My husband and I were very fortunate to be present when James Conlon, , took the podium for the last time in his role as music director of Ravinia Festival, a position he has held since 2005. He is only the fourth music director in the Ravinia festival’s history, Ravinia being North America’s oldest music festival. Before taking this position, he had been a favorite guest conductor since 1977. As he stepped onto the podium to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and an outstanding cast of opera stars in Richard Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman”,  the audience rose, clapping enthusiastically to express their appreciation for the years of beautiful music.


Entering the Ravinia Festival, Photo:Courtesy of Ravinia Festival

Conlon, who is considered one of today’s most versatile and respected conductors, has command of a vast symphonic, operatic and choral repertoire.  On this special night, the audience was treated to the first full performance of a Wagner opera to be performed at Ravinia.  The performance was magnificent, benefitting from outstanding performers but also the fact that Conlon has previously led four productions and more than 30 performances of this opera.


The large monitor

This performance of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman included the following: Chicago Symphony Orchestra, James Conlon, Conductor, Chicago Symphony Chorus [Duain Wolfe, Director], Greer Grimsley, Bass-baritone (The Dutchman) Amber Wagner, Soprano (Senta), Kristinn Sigmundsson, Bass (Daland), Simon O’Neill, Tenor (Erik), Ronnita Miller, Mezzo-soprano (Mary), Matthew Plenk, Tenor (Steersman). This performance was outstanding with James Conlon conducting, the CSO and the CSO chorus with amazing voices of opera stars from all over the globe, as far away as Iceland and New Zealand.


Announcing the program

It was a warm night and appreciative opera fans filled the Pavillion and the lawn. The large monitor on the lawn allowed for a good view of the happenings on stage.  The monitors in the pavilion also offered enhanced viewing to patrons there. 


The Ravinia crowd enjoying the lawn areas

I have always been intrigued with the Flying Dutchman theme, the phantom ship doomed to sail eternally.  Wikipedia’s explanation is:” The Flying Dutchman is a legendary ghost ship that can never make port and is doomed to sail the oceans forever. The myth is likely to have originated from 17th-century nautical folklore. The oldest extant version dates to the late 18th century. Sightings in the 19th and 20th centuries reported the ship to be glowing with ghostly light. If hailed by another ship, the crew of the Flying Dutchman will try to send messages to land, or to people long dead. In ocean lore, the sight of this phantom ship is a portent of doom.”


Picnicking with the statues

In brief, the story of Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” is as follows:

Sea captain Daland seeks refuge from a stormy sea near Sandwike, Norway, leaving the helmsman in charge.  The helmsman also drifts off and a ghostly appearing vessel is blown into the ship.  The captain of that, ship, the Dutchman, tells Daland that he is compelled to sail the seas for eternity but every seven years he can go ashore in an attempt to find a woman who will be faithful to him all her life.  Daland has a daughter, Senta.  The ghostly captain has money.  They go together to meet Senta.


In the meantime Senta fall head over heals for the picture of the Dutchman who she wants to save.  Everyone thinks she is crazy and Erik, the huntsman and her boyfriend tries to keep her from the Dutchman.


Though Senta swears her loyalty to the Dutchman, he does not believe her because he overheard Erik’s protestation.  The Dutchman sets sail and to prove her loyalty, Senta throws herself into the sea, and claims she will be faithful to him unto death. This is his salvation. The spectral ship disappears, and Senta and the Dutchman are seen ascending to heaven.


The overture

The music is beautiful, otherworldly, ghostly.  The voices of both the chorus and the singers were gorgeous.  High drama.  The overture, which weaves in all of the themes of the opera, was last to be written and it is beautiful.  The music evoked the ocean, sounds of sailors and some sounds that I had never heard from a musical instrument.  It was a night to remember.  The thunderous applause that arose after the opera ended went on and on.  How fortunate was Ravinia to have had James Conlon as their own for eleven years.


James Conlon (twice) conducting, Photo:Courtesy of Ravinia / Russell Jenkins

Ravinia continues to host performances that match almost everyone’s taste.  Even with summer on the way out, there are fantastic performers yet to be seen.

 Ravinia's calendar

Photos: B. Keer unless otherwise noted



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