Saint Valentine’s Day seemed a perfect occasion to premiere Victorian Opera’s extraordinary production of The Flying Dutchman. Wagner’s opera celebrates the redemptive power of love; here is a woman willing to sacrifice her life in order to prove her fidelity and, by so doing, save a man from perpetual torment.
The setting of St Kilda’s Palais Theatre as the venue was also highly appropriate. Originally designed as a cinema and later reconfigured for grand opera (amongst other live performances), it provided a showcase for a meeting of the two. The proximity of the bay rippling in the breeze also brought a surreal experience of life meeting art as patrons moved between a digital rendering of the sea inside the theatre and the real thing outside.
For all their virtues, even the most sophisticated special effects are gimmicks if they do not serve to intensify a composer’s dramatic intentions, particularly if that composer (and librettist) is Richard Wagner. Happily, in this case, they did. It was apparent from the outset that the music would have pride of place as Richard Mills led the Australian Youth Orchestra through the ten-minute long evocations of the overture with the red velvet curtain down. The young musicians surged through the emotional changes with an assurance that came from a combination of skill and an equally committed maestro at the helm. The enthusiastic applause and cheers that greeted the AYO at several points during the evening reflected the excitement created by such an accomplished rendering of Wagner’s score. The short excerpts played by the brass in the foyer had already acted as a fanfare to the main event, adding to the general buzz of anticipation.
When the curtain rose for the Sailors Chorus the audience collectively donned 3D glasses to enjoy the highly promoted 3D effects, courtesy of the creative team at Deakin Motion. Lab. Lightning streaked a storm-darkened sky and the ship swayed on a roiling sea as the sailors heaved on the ropes, the twenty members of the men’s chorus proving to be in splendid voice. Warwick Fyfe also demonstrated that the essential focus of this production would be on the singing by opening the story with a powerful account of a stormy journey. As Senta’s father, Daland, Fyfe was impressive throughout the evening, his strong performance suggesting that he also has the makings of a very fine Dutchman. Carlos E. Barcenas continued the vocal excellence as the Steersman, his beautiful tenor encompassing the range with satisfying ease and vitality.
The appearance of the Dutchman’s ship, its crimson sails billowing towards us, was indeed spectacular; the appearance of the Dutchman himself less so, but compelling in its way nevertheless. Director Roger Hodgman opted for a very static Dutchman, especially in Act 1. Dressed in the crimson of his ship’s sails, he stood motionless, contained – a presence apart – as he described his fate. Placed upstage Oskar Hillebrandt sang with restrained focus, his voice pleasingly mature and rich against Wagner’s light orchestration at key points in the narrative. Both Hillebrandt and Fyfe breathed dramatic and vocal life into the interchange between the Dutchman and the avaricious Daland, who seemed only too eager to exchange lodging and his daughter’s hand for the Dutchman’s ship full of treasure.
The orchestral prelude to Act 2 was accompanied by some exhilarating visual effects as the audience experienced the ship’s entry into the harbor. The bow wave sped along before us as a picturesque Norwegian village was sighted. Our ship finally came to rest and the stage was efficiently transformed into a simple interior, where women sang as they tended to their spinning wheels and Senta obsessed over the Dutchman’s portrait. By this time it was clear that the 3D glasses were unnecessary for much of the opera, although effective spotlights compensated for any slight dimming caused by the glasses.
With sets and costumes inspired by the artwork of Edvard Munch, Daland’s house was austere but enlivened by an attractively costumed female chorus, who sang the famous Spinning chorus with admirable control and spinning tone. As Senta’s nurse, Mary, Liane Keegan used her fine dramatic contralto voice to great effect.
Perhaps the acid test for excitement is the goose bump. For all the wonder of the visual wizardry and some truly impressive singing by other members of the cast, the visceral experience of hairs standing on end came when Lori Phillips as Senta spun her tale of the man condemned to sail forevermore unless rescued by the love of a faithful woman. Glorious and electrifying her voice seemed tailor made to fill the enormous space of the Palais Theatre. She possesses a rare degree of high vocal wattage combined with artistic refinement. For comparable fullness of sound throughout the range, only two other dramatic sopranos of recent Australian experience spring to mind, also both American: Christine Goerke, who sang the role of Elektra in a concert performance with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra last year and Christine Brewer (who will sing Isolde with the company later this year) in a recital at the Melbourne Recital Centre.
As well as having a fabulous voice, Phillips is a skilled actress, responding vocally and theatrically to the nuances of the music. Her scenes with both Hillebrandt and Bradley Daley’s Erik were highly charged affairs, despite the encumbrance of a skirt that made certain actions difficult to manage at times. Daley was an impassioned Erik, his ringing heldentenor providing a suitable match for Phillips’ emotional outpourings.
Would Wagner have been as thrilled by this digitally enhanced recreation of his masterpiece as the creative team of Victorian Opera envisaged? There were no distracting images playing over the singers’ faces (as in the Met’s Live in HD production of their recent Ring cycle), nor the inadequate visual effects that he found so bitterly disappointing in the first productions. The final sequence, as the ship, released from its curse, sinks beneath the waves and Senta and the Dutchmen rise as shadowy resurrected figures, would surely have met with his approval.
The crucial element of the sea was a palpable breathing presence for much of this production, both visually and musically. Along with awe-inspiring scenic effects, the AYO brought Wagner’s pulsating music to life. Attention to dramatic detail and exceptionally fine singing from the principals and chorus made this a production to remember. Judging by the reaction of the audience on opening night, the sum of these excellent parts was indeed thrilling and signalled the success of Victorian Opera’s aims of innovation, collaboration and artistic integrity.
Heather Leviston reviewed the opening night of The Flying Dutchman at the Palais Theatre on February 14, 2015.
The production picture of Lori Phillips as Senta was taken by Jeff Busby.