By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh
If you are there for the music, it’s gorgeous. If you are looking for more in the latest revival of Canadian Opera Company’s production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, it’ll depend on how long you can endure looking at the stage at a slant.
Allen Moyer’s set design of this previously run production (in 1996 and 2000) for the COC is ingenious in more than one ways. It is a ship at sea — a rectangular box that extends the length of the stage but tilted to the right. The ship then transforms into a spinning room, a home, and a party room. The singers sounded terrific because, and I can only imagine, it’s like singing with a surround-sound shell: voices were opulent, resonant, and magnetic.
At least that was the case at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on April 28.
Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin, making his COC debut, portrayed the ashen Flying Dutchman skilfully with not only his polished voice but superb acting. Soprano Julie Makerov walked the fine line between insanity and hopelessly in love in the role of Senta. Her voice, despite being a bit flat in some high pitches, was gloriously commanding. Swedish bass Mats Almgren as Daland was a little shaky in some lower passages in Scene 1, but his unique voice was rich and graceful. German tenor Robert Künzli as Erik was outstanding and so was mezzo-soprano Barbara Dever as Mary. Special kudos go to Canadian tenor Adam Luther as the Steerman for his eloquently beautiful solos in Scene 1, and to the choruses led by Sandra Horst. Conductor Johannes Debus and the COC orchestra delivered precision, passion, and drama from the pit.
However, the angle of the giant box stayed tilted to the right for the entire show, which runs for more than two hours without intermission.
In 1996, when I saw this very production at the then Hummingbird Centre, I lost a contact lens halfway through and watched the rest of the opera with one clear eye. My neck strained with a constant right tilt and I went home with a massive headache. The set is memorable to say the least; the image of this tilting stage was burned to my brain. It haunted me all these years like the portrait of the long-faced Flying Dutchman haunts Senta. I recoiled a bit when I saw Moyer’s infamous set again this week.
But bad experiences aside, the skewed ship and everything that it contained actually looked stunning in an instant. Director Christopher Alden evoked the condemnation of the nautical legend using mostly greyish tones during the first two scenes and, thanks to lighting designer Anne Militello, one felt the force of the sea intensely. This dark, oppressed mood was reinforced with a military-style spinning-and-weaving scene from the women’s chorus. Their synchronized foot stomping and hand gestures were chillingly choreographed it gave me goose bumps.
By the time you get to the last scene though, the set becomes dominated with neon green. If like most people in the audience your head is still tilted to the right, it’s hard to make out whether the actual stage above the orchestra pit is a flat line. The men wore neon green armbands that are Hitler-like and women sported neon green feathers. They wrestled back and forth on the intended stage that is the slanted party room, while lighting switched between neon green and neon pink. An elderly couple sitting near me left about halfway through and I contemplated reaching for some Tylenol in my bag.
In the end, it was the zombie walk of the Steerman across the real stage that saved me.
The Flying Dutchman continues at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on May 2, 8, 11, 14, 17, and 20.