Richard Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” will get a fresh retelling at Seattle Opera — directed by Christopher Alden and starring Greer Grimsley — in a setting reminiscent of 1920s Germany.
Richard Wagner’s Flying Dutchman may be cursed to wander the seas for a much, much longer time than the run-up to this year’s presidential election — but at least the captain occasionally gets to stand on solid ground.
In Seattle Opera’s production of the composer’s first enduring hit, “The Flying Dutchman” (1843), the setting for this reappearance will distinguish it from any version you may have seen before.
Not only does director Christopher Alden update the action from 19th-century Norway to a grim period in more recent history — which seems reminiscent of 1920s Germany — but he also allows its female lead, Senta, to emerge as a far stronger character than in Wagner’s distinctly un-feminist story.
Seattle Opera: ‘The Flying Dutchman’
Composed by Richard Wagner, directed by Christopher Alden and conducted by Sebastian Lang-Lessing at McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; May 7-21, $25-$297 (206-389-7676 or seattleopera.org).
The tale begins with the reappearance of an infamous ghost ship, The Flying Dutchman, whose captain (sung on different nights by Greer Grimsley and Alfred Walker) can redeem himself from the curse of wandering the seas forever only by finding a wife who loves him.
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Once every seven years, he’s allowed to come ashore to find his mate. This time, he pins his hopes on Senta (sung by Rebecca Nash and Wendy Bryn Harmer), who is already obsessed with his portrait and eager to save him. But a conflict emerges with huntsman Erik, who tries to keep her for himself. The thrilling conclusion invokes familiar Wagnerian themes: salvation through love, death and ascension.
“The production was never meant to be too specific,” Alden explained by phone. “But it’s almost as if it was set in that more recent and extreme German era, with a girl who’s obsessed with the plight of the other, the outsider, and stares at his picture all day as if it’s a piece of what the Nazis called ‘degenerate art.’ ”
In Alden’s version of “Dutchman,” Senta rebels against social norms and retreats into a private fantasy world. As her fantasy obsession collides with reality, she rejects the expectations of those around her and chooses what, to her, seems like the higher path.
“This piece has always felt to me about a narrow-minded, repressive world where everybody plays by the rules,” Alden said. “The men go to work on the ship while the women are in their little cottage industry back at home, and nobody questions the male and the female roles … except for this one girl who questions everything and casts a different light on the world that she lives in.”
Alden said his rethinking of “Dutchman” was partly inspired by the negative aspects of Wagner’s operas, including chauvinism and anti-Semitism. Without wishing to brush those under the carpet, he and set designer Allen Moyer tried to strip away the folkloric nature of Wagner’s tale and, in his words, let it “breathe,” focusing on the psychology of the characters and the opera’s “timeless human truths.”
Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley — who says he has lost count of how many times he has sung the Dutchman during his celebrated career — believes the production tells a story of anguish.
“It’s a wonderful and different way to look at it than the usual ship rolling in,” he said by phone during a rehearsal break. “I think it will be thought-provoking. One of the things I believe the Dutchman is guilty of is hope. He believes that each time, it’s going to be someone different who saves him.”
That summons shades of this year’s presidential election, to be sure. Except in “Dutchman,” we have the opportunity to witness a drama whose resonance extends far beyond the lives of its characters and into an arc of our own.