The spectral sea captain at the center of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” is a cursed figure, condemned to wander the oceans in a kind of deathless purgatory, allowed to come ashore just once every seven years.
Wagnerians in Boston may know the feeling. It has in fact been much longer than seven years since the city was last given a staged production of a Wagner opera. Due to the still rather remarkable absence of an opera house in Boston — or at least an opera house in which opera is actually performed — there have been no local Wagner productions for over two decades. The works still turn up in concert halls from time to time, but their large-scale musical and scenic demands have all but erased them from the local opera landscape.
Fortunately, in the composer’s bicentenary year, Boston Lyric Opera has risen to the occasion and brought “Dutchman” back into local port. “Die Frist ist um,” the title character sings in his chilling monologue. “The time is up.”
Music director David Angus has intriguingly chosen the rarely spotted early version of “Dutchman” from 1841, recently published in a new critical edition that here receives its US premiere. In this streamlined production, Wagner sets the action in Scotland and ends the work with a more bleakly tragic image of Senta’s suicide, shorn of a least a few layers of redemptive meaning. There are many smaller musical differences that may also catch the ear, lightening the work’s aura, emphasizing its distance from the later music dramas. In his program note, Angus plausibly describes this original version of the opera as an “energetic early Romantic score.”
And it does still pack a punch, as judged by Friday’s taut and compelling performance, marred only by an unfortunate directorial conceit (more on that in a minute). This new BLO production is abstract in its geography, without obvious references to time or place, and poetic in its visuals, with John Conklin’s sets offering a stylized geometric rendering of the Dutchman’s ship, and Seaghan McKay’s evocative video projections of the sea capturing something of its mesmerizing mythic power. We are placed for long stretches right on top of the churning waves.
Heading the strong cast is Alfred Walker, who lends his resonant and well-controlled bass-baritone to a portrait of the Dutchman as a profoundly world weary figure, human yet exiled from humanity, wearing his otherness like a skin. He is well-paired with the vocally strong Gregory Frank as the sea captain Donald (or Daland, in the later version), amazed by the Dutchman’s accumulated treasures and happy to consider offering him the hand of his daughter.
The British soprano Allison Oakes admirably throws herself into the role of Senta, who the Dutchman hopes will redeem him through the purity of her love. Oakes sings with abundant stamina and focus, though also with an intensity that edged at times toward the reckless. Chad Shelton was sympathetic and moving as her suitor, George (Erik in the later version), and Alan Schneider and Ann McMahon Quintero both performed well as the Steersman and Senta’s nurse, Mary, respectively.
Yet it was notably the choral singing that brought many of the evening’s highlights, especially the Act III sailors’ chorus, deftly staged and full of visceral energy. In the pit, Angus’s conducting was attentive to detail but also intent on keep-ing the score’s forward motion constant and vital.
And now, what to say about the un-subtle back story fashioned by director Michael Cavanagh, depicting Senta as mentally ill with profound father figure issues? This staging comes with two additional Sentas — ages 7 and 14 — who wordlessly haunt the proceedings, and the overture becomes an accompaniment to scenes of childhood trauma.
The conceit ultimately adds little, and distracts from an otherwise affecting new production. I left wondering if the impulse to “explain” Senta’s behavior bespeaks the director’s lack of faith in the audience’s ability to find resonance in narratives with their own profound blank spaces. You might actually argue that the mythic tug of Wagner’s operas in fact depend on not having all the answers provided, leaving a viewer with the room for an interior response to the counterpoint of drives and yearnings being played out on stage. Even if we were offered a fully coherent diagnosis, understanding Senta’s madness in modern clinical terms may help us no more than a lecture on the physics of tides explains the strangely harrowing majesty of the sea.
At least this production gives us that, too. It’s worth catching while it’s here; Wagner in Boston is too rare to miss.