The Atlanta Opera encounters mostly smooth sailing as it capably navigates the challenge of mounting an all-new production of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, the first mainstage show of the company’s 2017-18 season. The production isn’t perfect across the board, but its inventive visual elements vividly bring to life a contemporary vision of Wagner’s mythical story, and the composer’s lush sound world shimmers with cosmic, meditative angst.
There’s already a timeless aspect to Wagner’s opera about a cursed captain who sails the sea on his ghostly ship, only able to come ashore once every seven years to search for a faithful bride. Here, director Tomer Zvulun brings the action forward into a vaguely mid-20th-century time period in an appropriately dreary, industrial North Sea town. In more straightforward productions, the world of Senta (Melody Moore), with its spinning wheels, giggling girls, blazing fire and thatched roof, can often appear quaint, cozy and pleasant. However, with Jacob A. Climer’s stark set, we’re given the sheer brutal parabolic walls of an industrial garment factory so gray it has touches of “1984” or “Brave New World.” There’s little wonder if Senta has gone a little mad fantasizing about the romantic legend of the Flying Dutchman.
The set is less successful when we first see it in the opening act when we’re meant to understand the action takes place on a ship on stormy seas. The walls provide an almost insurmountable obstacle to creating a satisfying stage picture, and the nautical boxes scattered around the stage floor and lit from within, meant to represent various pieces of cargo or shipping equipment on the ship’s deck, make the space look crowded and jumbled. By the time the backdrop is ready for its star turn in Act 2’s scenes on land, we’ve already grown accustomed to pretending it isn’t there.
S. Katy Tucker’s projections work especially well at the opening, as we gaze at turbulent, dreamy abstractions during the overture (it all sets the tone with an appropriately hallucinatory, mythic mood), and at the end, when a huge projection of ocean waves covers the set. The projections are overutilized elsewhere, however, and the first part of Act 1 seems somehow too distant and indistinct because it takes place behind a scrim. I never quite understood the projections of drawings of the Dutchman’s ghostly crew, when the sailors were well-represented by supernumeraries dressed in Climer’s creepy sci-fi costumes with gasmask-like facial gear.
Climer’s costume for the Dutchman — part trenchcoated loner, part Bowie Space Oddity — perfectly brings to life an interesting, modern vision of the Dutchman as the ultimate outsider. It’s a vision that Wayne Tigges as a grave, pessimistic Dutchman capably embodies with his darkly brooding vocals and strong performance.
Moore and Tigges give the show a captivating, beating heart with a stunning performance of Act 2’s crucial love duet. Conductor Arthur Fagen gives forceful drama to the music’s juxtaposed moments of full, lush orchestration and dramatic quiet. Moore and Tigges bring to life a cosmic, legendary love, but also give the scene interesting touches of the recognizably human, as Senta takes the daring step of falling in love with a stranger and the isolated Dutchman exposes his vulnerability. Base Kristinn Sigmundsson shines as Senta’s greedy, scheming father, and the choral scenes, such as when the factory girls taunt Senta in Act 2 or when carousing sailors open Act 3, likewise pop to life as extraordinarily lucid and detailed. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris, with his heroic tenor, gives a touching edge to the heartbreak of the jilted character Erik.
The production, which next moves on to Cincinnati Opera and Houston Grand Opera, creates a sleek, modern, nuanced take on the classic story of “The Flying Dutchman.” Its various elements allow the performers and musicians to evoke the dramatic, mythic sweep of Wagner, but the new show also allows them to maintain an interesting and moving sort of human scale in the action. It’s ultimately an evocative combination perfectly suited for Wagner’s tale of the clash of the romantic imagination with the brutal realities of everyday life.
The Atlanta Opera’s “The Flying Dutchman”
$35-$131. 7:30 p.m. Nov. 7; 8 p.m. Nov. 10; 3 p.m. Nov 12. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 404-881-8885, www.atlantaopera.org.