Arizona Opera queued up the second production of its 2013-2014 season last weekend with Wagner’s Der Fliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman). An unusual production, it was well received by the audience despite offering a good many reasons to be dissatisfied.
First performed in 1843, Der Fliegende Hollander is the earliest of Wagner’s operas still included in the standard repertoire. By Wagnerian standards it is short; running about 135 minutes in performance. Written in three acts, Wagner planned for the opera to be staged without intermission. The Phoenix production included one intermission at the end of Act I.
The story is stereotypically operatic. The Dutchman and his crew are cursed to sail their ghostly ship perpetually. Once every seven years he is allowed to come ashore in search of a loving and faithful wife. Should he find one, the curse would be broken.
The cast, led by Mark Delavan in the title role, did a wonderful job under what appeared to be unusual working conditions. A local review described the production as ‘semi-staged’. It was not a concert performance. The performers were costumed. Images were projected onto screens fashioned to look like sails as an alternative to traditional sets. There was even a small diagonal strip of performance space built out over the orchestra pit on which the performers could move around and interact. This is where the production’s choices started to get a little
The reason they were able to build out over the pit is because the orchestra was on stage…covering most of the stage. With the chorus who sing the roles of sailors and towns women tucked into opposite upstage corners, they were forced to sing with or to each other over heads of the musicians.
Projected images where used as an alternative to sets but they were hard to see because the stage had to be lit sufficiently for the musicians to read the score. Also, the images seemed to change almost randomly at times without regard to the music or libretto. There was an image of a framed portrait of the Dutchman that appeared frequently. (Yes, a picture of a picture rather than , you know….a picture.) At times the performers would turn back to gaze evocatively at it. As staged, however, this meant the singers were facing directly away from the audience. It looked like they were looking at the conductor, which made sense since he was standing on stage directly behind them if they faced forward.
Arizona Opera did a production last season with mostly projected sets. Technically interesting, the disadvantage was the performers were fairly static, standing down stage in a single line and singing. In that production, however, at least the musicians were in the pit so, while the performers had limited space to move, at least the projected images had scale. In this case, we had the worst of both, no room to move and images of more limited impact because all the stage space was covered by the orchestra.
In the end, (Spoiler Alert!) there was no sea into which Senta, our heroine, could hurl herself. The projected portrait of the Dutchman reappeared and Senta’s image appeared beside him. Visualize Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” without the pitchfork.