A woman with red hair stands left, holding a portrait and facing a man in a long dark cloak. A line of performers in dark raincoats and hats stands on a slanted platform behind them.
Tamara Wilson (left) and Tomasz Konieczny in The Flying Dutchman at Lyric Opera Credit: Todd Rosenberg

Director Christopher Alden is back at Lyric Opera for the first time since his racy production of Rigoletto created an uproar there back in 2000. The Alden project onstage now—his take on Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman—is of the same approximate vintage, debuting at Canadian National Opera in 1996. And yes, on opening night last weekend, simulated copulation could be spotted onstage, but you’d have to hunt for it. What was more obvious was the dramatic and descriptive power of Wagner’s music, delivered by the Lyric Opera orchestra, the mighty Lyric Opera chorus, and a fine cast of soloists, under the baton of conductor Enrique Mazzola.  

The Flying Dutchman
Through 10/7: Wed 9/27 7 PM; Sun 10/1 and Wed 10/4 2 PM, Sat 10/7 7:30 PM; audio description and touch tour Sun 10/1; Lyric Opera, 20 W. Wacker, 312-827-5600, lyricopera.org, $41-$339

The plot, inspired by mythic and literary sources, tells of a ship’s captain, the Dutchman, doomed to sail forever unless he can find the love of a faithful woman. The requisite woman, Senta, has conveniently been entranced by a portrait of the captain even before her father brings him home. Dad has agreed to trade Senta’s hand in marriage for the Dutchman’s treasure; that’s fine with her, but not with the jealous huntsman who thought she would be his own bride. He’s armed; she dies.  

Wagner gave this ghost ship story a richly dramatic score, and Alden’s strenuously choreographed version of it—starting with the acrobatic effect of turbulent seas—ramps up the melodrama. It’s heavy-handed eye candy in motion. Equally blunt: the attempt by Alden and designer Allen Moyer to graft this 1843 opera (by an infamous anti-Semite and Hitler’s favorite composer) to the 20th-century Holocaust. In this production, the portrait that hypnotizes Senta is a 1917 print by Erich Heckel exhibited in the 1937 Nazi party exhibition of “Degenerate Art,” and the Dutchman, said by Alden in his director’s note to be “a stand-in for the Wandering Jew of myth,” is also revealed to be a stand-in for the victims of Nazi death camps.
Tamara Wilson’s  powerful soprano can easily dominate the massive Lyric stage, but she turns in a subtle performance as the fatally obsessed Senta. In spite of costumes that suggest little orphan Annie meets Dracula, she’s well matched with masterful bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny as the Dutchman. Bass Mika Kares brings to life Daland, the father who would trade his daughter for riches (“I’ve wished for a son-in-law like you,” he blithely confides to the ominous stranger). The cast also includes mezzo-soprano Melody Wilson as Senta’s companion and two outstanding tenors: Robert Watson in his Lyric debut as the aggrieved huntsman, and Ryan Opera Center member Ryan Capozzo as the steersman. The decision to run the two-hour-and-twenty-minute performance straight through without intermission, as Wagner intended? Genius.