Victorian Opera’s 2015 flagship production of Wagner’s early masterpiece hoists sail.

Opera-goers who are weary of interpretations of Wagner’s early masterpiece, The Flying Dutchman as a dark hallucination by a sexually repressed Senta, will find Victorian Opera’s production which opened on Valentine’s Day at the Palais Theatre refreshingly different. It is picturesque, imposes no puzzling Konzept, is beautifully sung by an Australian and international cast and is impressively played by the Australian Youth Orchestra under the well-paced conducting of Richard Mills.

The goal of VO’s production, directed by Roger Hodgman, has been to stay close to the original spirit of Wagner’s work while utilising the latest image-projection technology. The composer’s stage directions have generally been followed, and attention has also been paid to his Remarks on Performing the Opera ‘The Flying Dutchman’, first published in 1853. Evidence of the latter came with the Dutchman’s crucial monologue Die Frist is um, sung by the excellent and highly experienced German baritone Oskar Hillebrand. ‘[The Dutchman’s] first phrases should be sung without the slightest emotion, as by one completely exhausted’ wrote Wagner, and this was how it was done. Injunctions to show the sea raging and foaming, and the heaving of Daland’s ship were effectively observed.

American soprano Lori Phillips was a convincing Senta, delivering her famous ballad with the familiarity of someone sharing every twist and turn of the unfortunate Dutchman’s fate, while never doubting her capacity to save him. Her scenes with the despairing Erik, and then with the Dutchman in their duet of hope and promise, were gripping, although I’m not sure why her cry of surprise at the Dutchman’s entry in Act Two was delivered with her back to him. Indeed the entry of Daland and the Dutchman lost some of its impact because they were still walking when the wall of the house was raised to reveal them. Bradley Daley was a persuasive Erik, ‘stormy, impulsive and sombre, like every man who lives alone’, said Wagner (from personal experience, one wonders?). Erik’s cavatina in the third act was filled with heartache and melancholy.

Warwick Fyfe sang the role of Daland with a beautiful tone and rock-solid delivery. His characterisation was not so much that of an old sea dog as of a wily merchant, implied by his fidgety movements and, perhaps, by the fact that Fyfe is more baritone than bass. Nevertheless, the Act One duet with the Dutchman was splendidly handled, with a sense of Italianate lilt à la Bellini. Of the other characters, Liane Keegan was warmly expressive and solicitous as Mary, and Carlos Bárcenas sang the Steersman’s role with clarity and precision. Special mention must be made of the various choruses which play vital roles in this opera and were highly effective.

Integral to the production style of the VO Dutchman was the much-heralded use of 3D projections, developed in collaboration with Deacon Motion.Lab. The use of high definition projections in opera is not new. However the idea that such imagery should be presented in 3D is fairly novel, and the question arises: ‘Is it worth the trouble and cost involved?’ Audience members were issued with 3D spectacles which were donned in a spirit of open-mindedness and slight amusement. They must have been an alarming sight when viewed from the stage. Some did not, or could not use the glasses, and so, for them, the main projections appeared blurry.

In the early 1840s when Richard Wagner was writing The Flying Dutchman in Paris, there was a growing fascination with the fledgling technology of photography. Newfangled daguerreotypes and calotypes were all the rage and, within a decade, stereoscopes creating the illusion of three dimensional images had given rise to a veritable 3D industry. For a long time, magic lanterns had been used to create special effects on stage, and Wagner used them himself in some of his productions, most notably in the Ring of 1876 to depict the Valkyries riding across the sky. Projections of clouds crossing the midnight sun, and sailing ships coming and going in the Norwegian fjords are not all that different.

The projected images created for the VO Dutchman are meticulous in their literal detail, and depict everything from splashing spray, swaying branches and fluttering leaves, to sunlight and moonlight on moving water and billowing sails. Period costuming by designer Teresa Negroponte in the intense, even gaudy hues of hand-coloured photographs and engravings contributed to the evocation of the period in which the opera was created. Such literal depictions inevitably strengthen the narrative at the expense of psychological and philosophical allusions which remain the preserve of text and music. This need not be the case and, in other contexts and with other production styles, more abstract or even surreal imagery could be used with equally good effect. Only in the musically thrilling confrontation in Act Three between the tipsy Norwegian revellers and the Dutchman’s crew – between the living and the undead – did the projections move into the realm of computer games and somewhat cartoonish formulas.

There remains just one puzzle. If the intention was to observe the composer’s wishes, why was the Dutchman clothed in red and gold instead of – as the libretto specifies, twice – in a ‘black Spanish costume’. The latter is a reference to the Spanish Netherlands of the Hapsburgs from which the undying Dutchman originates – a political entity which is the subject of a lively exchange between King Philip of Spain and Don Carlos in Verdi’s great work of 1867. Aesthetically, it seems to me, a cheerful red and gold uniform, though undeniably eye-catching, somewhat contradicts the unfortunate mariner’s depressed and suffering state of mind. That aside, Victorian Opera’s production, which marks the company’s tenth anniversary, is certainly worth experiencing. It is a bold venture into the use of 3D technology in operatic performance, which is capable of further development and refinement. It will be seen again in Perth, probably in 2017. Most of all, the Melbourne production is a worthy reminder of the many splendid things in Wagner’s exciting score from a seminal period in his career.

Victorian Opera present The Flying Dutchman, at the Palais Theatre, St Kilda until February 19.