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The Flying Dutchman tells the story of a man doomed to sail the seas forever unless he can find a faithful woman.Michael Cooper 2022 coopershoots/Amazon Prime

  • Title: The Flying Dutchman
  • Original Director: Christopher Alden
  • Revival Director: Marilyn Gronsdal
  • Conductor: Johannes Debus
  • Actors: Johan Reuter, Marjorie Owens, Franz-Josef Selig, Miles Mykkanen, Christopher Ventris, Rosie Aldridge.
  • Company: Canadian Opera Company
  • Venue: Four Seasons Centre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs until Oct. 23
  • COVID-19 measures: Masks recommended, not mandatory.

Lizzo, baseball, Wagner: Torontonians had many choices for entertainment on Friday night. In a season-opening speech, Canadian Opera Company general manager Perryn Leech used the Blue Jays as a metaphor for the COC’s return to in-person presentation – subtly acknowledging the challenging climate for the arts and urging the near-capacity crowd to come back for additional offerings. If productions (including revivals, of which there are many) are as intelligent as the current The Flying Dutchman, audiences are in for a treat.

Running through Oct. 23 at The Four Seasons Centre For The Performing Arts, Richard Wagner’s 1843 opera Die fliegende Holländer tells the story of the Dutchman, doomed to sail the seas forever unless he can find a faithful woman – which he does in Senta, who has been waiting for his arrival.

Based on tales of a ghostly ship originating in European folklore and 17th-century maritime trade, the opera was also inspired by German writer Henrich Heine’s 1833 novel, Aus den Memoiren des Herrn von Schnabelewopski (The Memoirs of Mister von Schnabelewopski), which features a central character who can only be redeemed by the love of a faithful woman. Christopher Alden’s 2010 production (here led by revival director Marilyn Gronsdal) references the mythology while drawing inspiration from the aesthetics of German Expressionist cinema to create a moving work that offers chewy drama and close social commentary.

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The production hints at the menace that sits within the mundane, rendering its title figure an outsider who cannot exist in a world of repression and violence. Its set, a tilted box (by Set and Costume Designer Allen Moyer) with a huge ship’s wheel and a narrow winding staircase, emphasizes the claustrophobic atmosphere through which love and connection are rendered impossible.

A woodcut-style illustration of a man, his hands resting on his face (resembling Munch’s 1893 painting, The Scream), is used throughout the production, and, like the huge shadow of the ship’s wheel looming against the mottled back wall of the set, becomes a dramatic visual reflecting the leitmotifs sewn within Wagner’s dense score. Lighting designer Anne Militello effectively channels Expressionist influences in her revealing contrasts: bright and shadowy; still and fluid.

During the famous Spinning Chorus song, women of the COC Chorus are starkly lit and positioned in rows reminiscent of scenes from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, their movements monotonous and sinister. Their calls of “mein gutes Rädchen, braus und saus!” (“my good wheel hum and sing!”) are coloured by an aggressive conformity that will subsequently morph into a more grandiose if disturbing expression of that positioning.

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Franz-Josef Selig (on stairs) as Daland and Miles Mykkanen (at the wheel) as the Steersman.Michael Cooper Prime

Later During Sailors Chorus (Steuermann, lass die Wacht!), the ensemble slams down beer mugs, bangs on walls and stomps feet, turning a jaunty musical line hostile, with the men wearing thick armbands over their uniformly matching suits, and the women in complementing stoles which emit an eerie glow. The aggression, the bullying body language, the hardened stares, the brash delivery – all prove uncomfortably familiar and far more unsettling than the Dutchman himself.

And what of the fabled figure? At first sight, the Dutchman (Johan Reuter) is cloaked in a sweeping, Nosferatu-like coat, plus goggles and headgear. Simple acts of removal (by him, or others) reveal not a monster but a man; het is less scary than scarily human. The coat, taken off by Senta (Marjorie Owen), reveals striped pyjamas, an outfit which precisely matches those worn by the Dutchman’s crew, who are revealed within the lattice-like framework beneath the set, and quietly stare out at the audience. It is a haunting piece of staging, particularly given contextual histories, including the composer’s anti-Semitism.

Such moments effectively underline the production’s exploration of power and its relationship to perceived civility. The Dutchman is a ghost, one this particular society chooses to mythologize, vilify and ultimately isolate. Senta’s final “sacrifice” (which closes the opera) is staged with simple if highly effective elements that drive the point home: conform or die.

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Franz-Josef Selig as Daland, Miles Mykkanen as the Steersman, Christopher Ventris (front) as Erik, and Rosie Aldridge as Mary.Michael Cooper

The stellar singing in The Flying Dutchman underlines the drama both inherent to the score and to Alden’s vision, with Danish baritone Johan Reuter’s entrance aria (Die Frist ist um, which translates to, The time is up) an intelligent blend of colour and texture infused with real feeling. As Erik, the lover whom Senta rejects, tenor Christopher Ventris delivers a stylish reading with beautifully clear diction, despite his vocal tiring toward the end of opening night. Marjorie Owens’s Senta is laser-focused and nicely modulates her clarion soprano tone and is particularly affecting in the scene where Senta and the Dutchman first meet.

The COC Orchestra takes its cues from the production’s cinematic design, with music director Johannes Debus giving a bold reading of the opera that first welcomed him to the company back in 2010. How much more does this Dutchman have to say in 2022? Quite a lot, as it happens.

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