Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium
- a safe harbour for the 'Flying Dutchman'?

Title Page for the Text Book used at
Liszt's 1853 Weimar Staging of "The Flying Dutchman"


Wagner’s stormy life was intertwined with an opera theme, early on: in 1839, after two years, he lost his Riga post as Kapellmeister, had accumulated debts and fled across the sea to London. The schooner Tetis braved wild storms and had to land twice at the Norwegian shore. These impressions did not leave Wagner. In his memory, they became intertwined with Heine’s material from Memoiren des Herren von Schnabelewopski, which he had come across in Riga in 1837/8. In them, he also read up on the saga of the Dutch captain Bernard Fokke, who, when unsuccessfully trying to navigate the Cape of Good Hope, cursed God and nature and, as a result, was doomed to sail the seas until Judgment Day. Having arrived in Paris, in 1841, Wagner wrote the original version of his opera and placed the action into Scotland, but later changed it to Norway.  Paris was not interested in his work, so that, in 1832, he took it back with him to Dresden.  There, it was premiered in 1843.  In 1901, Wagner’s son Siegfried made it part of the standard repertoire of the Bayreuth Festival. What can we, as post-modern skeptics, still gain from an opera in which the young heroine Senta sacrifices herself out of love in order to save the Flying Dutchman?

On Saturday’s premier night, Edmonton Opera’s new production at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium gave me an opportunity to try to find that out, for myself.  While the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of John Keenan, quickly found itself in the overture, the stage setting already offered me something worth pondering:  Fascinated, singer Susan Marie Pierson, playing Senta, approached a portrait of the Flying Dutchman that was hung on the stage curtain.  It reminded me of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

The simple yet sophisticated stage set was an effective part of the overall concept of Brian Deedrick’s production that oriented itself at German expressionist-style films from the early 20th century.  A rectangle box that ascended from right to left served as main stage, while beneath it, an equally ascending prison-like cellar served as scene of action for the members of the Flying Dutchman’s ghost ship.  Singers, choir members and supernumeraries were clad in drab workmen’s clothing of the 1920’s, which heightened the „expressionist“ overall impression.

In the fist act, Senta’s father Daland and the Flying Dutchman meet at the seashore near Sandwike when their ships seek refuge from a raging sea storm.  The Dutchman can convince the greedy Daland of his wealth and even persuade him to promise him the hand of his daughter Senta.  

All three male soloists, Jason Howard as Dutchman, Marc Embree as Daland and Scott Scully as the Steuermann, and the male members of the Edmonton Opera Choir were vocally convincing.  The only exception to this was when Daland, standing on the spiral staircase, had to sing bent down and, due to the acoustics of the „Jube“, lost in clarity. 

After the first act, Wagner offers a break, while the second and third act are connected with an entr’acte.  In the second act, the village girls are awaiting the return of their sailors, while Senta continues to moon over the Flying Dutchman’s portrait.  She appears to be very familiar with his tragic fate.  Senta also has to stave of the advances of her long-time admirer, the hunter Erik [a character Wagner had added to the story], sung by Marc Deaton.  However, it is not surprising that, when her father and the Dutchman arrive, she is already so favorably disposed towards the stranger that she agrees to marry him, which also suits her greedy and lecherous father’s wishes.  Preparation for next day’s wedding feast are underway.  

This act offers all female choir members an opportunity to shine both vocally and also in their visual performance.  The „spinning scene“ partly reminded me of the choreographic means of expression of Ausdruckstanz but, from its theme, of Hauptmann’s play Die Weber.  Entirely in line with this theme was Emilia Boteva as Frau Mary in her interaction with the girls and Senta [rather as a factory supervisor than as a nursemaid]. Susan Marie Pierson’s Senta was vocally convincing, throughout. 

After the entr’acte, the third act offers the solution to the plot:  The attempt of Daland's crew to invite the Dutchman’s crew to the festivities ends with their eerie, other-worldly reply.  Senta again flees from the advances of Erik who, in vain, tries to remind her of her alleged pledge of fidelity to her.  The Dutchman, overhearing this, sees his hopes of salvation crushed and tries to convince the seemingly unfaithful Senta from eternal damnation by telling her of his fate and by freeing her from her promise to him.  Senta tries to keep the Dutchman from returning to his ship, swears that she will eternally remain faithful to him and chooses voluntary death [traditionally by jumping into the sea from a cliff, so that the Flying Dutchman is saved, with the result of him and his ghost ship dissolving into thin air].

In the last part of this production, the excellent vocal presence of the main characters [Howard as Dutchman and and Pierson as Senta] becomes even more intensified. The festive village scenes eerily reminded me of Oskar Maria Graf’s pre-Third Reich „village novels“, in sharp contrast to the end of the plot that here, very wisely, was only outlined so that it leaves ample room to the audience’s imagination:  Senta removes her bridal veil, dives down into the crowd and is lifted up by it, „apparently dead“, and the legs of the Flying Dutchman, already high up on the spiral staircase, slowly move and vanish in upward direction. 

Some simple-minded folks might take this symbolic outline at face value and, in their minds, exchange it with the traditional take of the opera plot.  However, if we realize that Deedrick, with his well thought-through take, returns that to us which Wagner has taken from us, namely the freedom to think for ourselves, we can all the more appreciate the efforts of the singers, musicians and the conductor.  Wagner takes much more from them, since they can certainly not afford the luxury of failing to use their ability to think for themselves.  That they used their thinking as well as the director did become evident in this stimulating premiere night.

Ingrid Schwaegermann.