Superb singing and spectacular staging have made the Piedmont Opera‘s current production of Richard Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer a hit not to be missed – even by detractors of Wagner! And for Wagner-lovers, this was a long-anticipated event – the first professional performance of a Wagner opera in the Piedmont region of North Carolina! A full house at the Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem gave the opera company a well-deserved standing ovation.

What Wieland Wagner, grandson of the iconoclast composer Richard Wagner, started in the 1940s and ’50s was brought to spectacular culmination in the Piedmont Opera’s current production of Holländer. The first director to introduce projections to Wagner’s custom-built opera house, the Bayreuth Festival Theatre, Wieland tried to eliminate traditional realistic sets in favor of minimalist symbolic sets, lit from above with important elements of décor projected from behind. This Piedmont production makes use of projections impossible in the pre-digital age. They are spectacular and add immensely to the success of the production. Three huge screens are built into the sets, behind the deck. They projected at different times seascapes, landscapes, the flames of hell, the spinning factory, and the arrival of the phantom ship with red sails that self-furled mysteriously. Had they been any more realistic, the audience would have gotten seasick!

Compared to most opera plots, that of the Flying Dutchman is simple: condemned by the devil to sail forever unless he finds a woman who will be true to him until death, the Dutchman may debark only every seven years to search for that savior. The theme of the wanderer is pervasive in literature, and the direct antecedent for the Dutchman is an unfinished novel by Heinrich Heine about a wandering Jew. The Dutchman is freed of his curse by Senta, the daughter of another sea captain (and, in this production, a Germanic wool merchant). Salvation through love is a recurrent theme of Wagner’s –– which culminates in Tristan und Isolde.

The opera marks a turning point in Wagner’s career and already makes extensive use of motifs to indicate characters and situations. The slower dramatic moments already portend the mature Wagner while the joyful and celebratory moments have a decided Italianate character to them.

The Dutchman is played and sung by Jake Gardner with weary resignation but powerful depth. His long first act monologs do much to set the desperation of his plight, and his duets with Senta in the second act are musical gems. Carter Scott sings Senta, young, idealistic, and already in love with the legend of the Flying Dutchman before she meets him. Scott’s lovely and large soprano voice is first exhibited in the “Ballad of the Dutchman” in the first part of the second act, where she enchants her co-workers in the wool factory with the details of the cursed captain. Her duet that ends the second act was gorgeous – one only wished for a bit more sound on the final “B” naturals – perhaps she was saving them for those at the end of the opera, where her act of devotion finally breaks the curse of the Dutchman.

Her greedy father, Daland, who was happy to marry his daughter to the mysterious but wealthy wanderer, was sung by Brian Banion who filled his strong and deep bass voice with innuendo at the thought of acquiring such a wealthy son-in-law. Erik, Senta’s old flame, soon extinguished by the over-powering presence of the Dutchman, has one of the loveliest tenor voices around in the person of Jason Wickson. His declaration of love to Senta in Act II would be a musical highlight of the evening had not Wagner made it so obviously futile.

The role of Mary, Senta’s maid, bossy and business-minded, was ably sung by Kate Farrar, a bright and strong-voiced mezzo-soprano. The only comic (somewhat) role in this otherwise somber plot was sung by an up and coming tenor, Jonathon Johnson who had previously played the role of protagonist in La Rondine and who sounded even better as the nameless pilot (Steuermann, “steersman”) of Daland’s ship. With a honey-like voice, his is a career one wants to follow!

Members of the Piedmont Opera chorus – sailors, spinning ladies and townsfolk – were excellent and high spirited. Stage Director Steven LaCosse had them circulating in very natural ways on a stage whose deck is sloped and protrudes 20 feet out over the orchestra pit.

Under the masterful direction of James Allbritten, Artistic Director of the Piedmont Opera, the Winston-Salem Symphony was admirable in the pit, especially the many soft brass passages. Also notable was the exquisite tympani work of Peter Zlotnick. A couple of times one wished for more strings in the cramped pit and only once did the orchestra threaten to overpower the singers (at the end of Act II).

A co-production of the Piedmont Opera and Princeton Festival Opera, this production draws upon the resources of the prestigious University of North Carolina School of the Arts both in casting and production. The trio of scenic designers – Mark Pirolo (scenic design), Norman Coates (lighting design), and David Palmer (projection design) – all working under the direction of LaCosse, were responsible for much of the success of this production. All four have ties to the UNCSA. Singers Kate Farrar and Jonathon Johnson are current graduate students of the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute of the UNC School of the Arts, and Carter Scott is a graduate of the Institute.

The only mishap of the evening occurred at the very beginning, during the overture, when the spot lights, which didn’t go out when the projection of the choppy seas came on, turned the red curtain into an apparent bowl of spaghetti with tomato sauce!

Repeat performances are at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, October 27, and at 7:30 p.m, on Tuesday, October 29. For details, see the sidebar. And for much more information, click here.