Mounting any Wagner opera properly is a massive undertaking. The resources required can sink a fragile company, and even an unlimited budget cannot guarantee that every element will work. Simply finding adequate singers is always problematic, as is the cost of an aptly sized orchestra. But a group has no claim to the major leagues unless it can do Wagner, and the challenges are irresistible to ambitious companies. The Virginia Opera, which presented “The Flying Dutchman” (“Der Fliegende Höllander”) this weekend at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts, has aimed high in the past with some success, and it can be proud of this effort as well.
The production itself was by the Washington National Opera’s Francesca Zambello, imported from the Glimmerglass Festival. It was framed by standard utilitarian stage scaffolding, with lots and lots of ropes, which served as rigging for the shipboard sequences and which the women braided during the “Spinning Chorus.” Efficient enough, though I’d think hung scenery or other decor could have made the settings clearer (Wagner’s mise-en-scène calls for two ships simultaneously). Zambello’s handling of the third act in particular — what on earth was that bed doing there? — would have confused those who didn’t know the opera, plus she doesn’t have the lovers united in the end, as they’re supposed to be.
That said, it was an imaginative and well-grounded take on things, and the costumes and blocking were excellent. After an unnecessarily gloomy first act, when several characters were singing in darkness, the lighting was good, too.
Saturday’s performance was solid, beginning with the ringing Senta of Christina Pier. She was a pleasure to listen to all evening, in all registers. Wayne Tigges in the title role didn’t have the greatest German, and he showed some strain at both ends of his range. Sometimes he had a distracting beat in his voice, but when he was comfortable, the tone was clear and powerful. Peter Volpe (Daland) had some of the same problems, and Corey Bix (Erik) sounded the most effortful, if ardent. David Blalock and Rachelle Pike handled their smaller roles well, the latter with crisp, effective acting.
No complaints at all about the superb chorus and dancers; it was often hard to tell which was which, because their scenes had so much tightly drawn action. Conductor Adam Turner, though, was a disappointment. Pacing was dreary in slower sections, and there was a foursquare quality to everything. And while it’s not his fault that there weren’t enough string players in the orchestra (drawn from the Richmond Symphony), it was his fault that the brass couldn’t be held down to balance them.
Still, given the challenges of this work, this was a more than respectable “Höllander,” nicely gearing us up for WNO’s “Ring” cycle.