Seattle Opera’s production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman opens with one of the most arresting curtain-raisings I’ve seen from the company: the cast filling Allen Moyer’s set, a cavernous box-within-a-box that is tilted 10 degrees or so off level. It’s an immediate cue that this isn’t going to be a traditionalist staging; director Christopher Alden says he was inspired by German expressionism, a concept which sounds more intriguing than it turned out to be. The entire opera takes place within this box, and further distancing from naturalism comes through Alden’s stylized unison gestures for the chorus and slow-motion movement for the principals.
Senta is one of Wagner’s more curious heroines, a woman obsessed with the legend of the titular sailor condemned to wander the seas for eternity until redeemed by love. Guess who her ship-captain father brings home? She’s clearly not all there, yet making this obsession explicit, as large-voiced soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer (in Sunday’s cast) does, results in a peculiar dissonance: What we see is an archetypal stage madwoman, touchy, twitchy, neurotic; what we hear is grand, ringing, silvery, and none too nuanced in either color or delivery. Harmer is wonderfully stirring in Senta’s moments of bold, straightforward proclamation, like her Scene 2 duet after she and the Dutchman meet and in her final farewell, but elsewhere she seems vocally miscast for Alden’s high-concept take on the role. Also not a perfect fit for her is the dreamy, once-upon-a-time ballad in which Senta recalls the Dutchman legend, especially at conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing’s logy tempos, which made sustaining a sense of storytelling magic—taking the audience somewhere—a challenge unmet. Also in Sunday’s cast, Alfred Walker’s Dutchman, a tormented, brooding, ghostly figure with a robust, chesty bass-baritone, poses a similar issue. Both he and Harmer sound their considerable best when urged through a phrase from the podium, rather than left to linger on their own.
There’s a hint of double-reed coloring in the voice of Daniel Sumegi, effective as Daland, the captain who essentially sells his daughter to the Dutchman for a cut of his treasure, which here looks like a handful of Mardi Gras beads. This cast boasts two excellent tenors with fresh, flexible, lovely voices: David Danholt as Erik, Senta’s betrothed, rightly peeved when she decides to wed the Dutchman, and Colin Ainsworth as the ship’s Steersman. Danholt was a winner of the Seattle Opera’s 2014 Wagner Competition, Ainsworth is making his company debut; I hope they both return soon and often. The Flying Dutchman, McCaw Hall, Seattle Center, 389-7676, seattleopera.org, $25 and up. Ends May 21.