Though the legend of a seaman doomed to sail forever was already hackneyed by the time he took it up, it was through his idiosyncratic treatment of this material that Richard Wagner first found his authentic voice. “Do you fear a song, a picture?” sings the heroine Senta in her first confrontation with Erik, her hapless suitor. But Wagner was well aware of the dangerous potential art possesses when the goal is no longer escapist entertainment. So is director Christopher Alden, whose production (originally created for Canadian Opera Company two decades ago) mirrors the young composer's sense of thrilling new horizons beyond routine and convention. With a cast of powerhouse singers, this Dutchman sustains an arc of high-voltage tension, refusing to loosen its grip until the final blackout. 

<i>The Flying Dutchman</i> at Seattle Opera © Philip Newton
The Flying Dutchman at Seattle Opera
© Philip Newton

Alden returns to Seattle after a long hiatus. He was last invited here for a Don Giovanni in 1991 that reportedly generated a heated audience backlash. Kudos to general director Aidan Lang for inviting him back: Dutchman, which closes Lang's second season at the helm, signals a serious commitment to opera and is the finest production the company has staged to date under his watch.

The first bold choice was to present Dutchman seamlessly, as Wagner initially intended, with no intermissions between the three scenes. In the pit, conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing underscored the uninterrupted theatrical tension with driving momentum. Wagner's uneasy silences seemed especially menacing in the long opening scene, though the level of volume the conductor whipped up resulted in some blurred playing.

Allen Moyer's unit set was an austere rectangular box dominated on one side by a massive steering wheel and a metal spiral staircase on which the Dutchman's 'ascension' played out in the denouement. The exaggerated tilt of the box recalled the Expressionist atmosphere of films like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. In the opening scene this served handily as a 'realistic' representation of Daland's storm-tossed vessel.

Daniel Sumegi (Daland) © Philip Newton
Daniel Sumegi (Daland)
© Philip Newton

But as the drama proceeded, it suggested different perspectives of a conformist society metaphorically 'off-kilter'. The space was transformed into a stark factory setting for the women's spinning work – where Senta is not harmlessly teased but taunted as a misfit. By the final scene, Alden's staging had made it clear that it's not just the Dutchman who is spooky: the whole town seems overtaken by the kind of mass delusion you might encounter in a Stephen King novel.

Moyer's costumes conflated imagery from the 1920s with references to the Holocaust. Beneath his Dracula-like long coat, the Dutchman wore a striped prisoner's uniform, and his ghostly sailors were seen cramped below decks in images evoking concentration camp victims. In contrast to the bleakness of the set, Anne Militello's lighting painted a wealth of variable moods and inner states. Her spectacularly imaginative work became a character in its own right, every bit as important as Alden's direction in interpreting the drama.

Greer Grimsley (Dutchman) © Philip Newton
Greer Grimsley (Dutchman)
© Philip Newton

Greer Grimsley conveyed the Dutchman's lacerating self-consciousness of being forever condemned to remain an Outsider. What his enormous bass-baritone lacked in nuance was compensated by a thrillingly reverberant projection of wounded majesty. In a wonderful performance, Rebecca Nash cast aside all cliches of 'Senta-mentality' (to steal Nietzsche's jab). Instead of an airy, dreamy romantic, hers was a strong-willed, obsessive Senta out on a mission, with an awareness of her own alienation that made the character's immediate gravitation to the Dutchman plausible. Vocally, Nash was capable of spinning gorgeously soft passages in her ballad but easily held her own with Grimsley's huge voice, never stinting as she delivered richly grained, exciting top notes. 

During her first encounter with the Dutchman – possibly the weirdest 'love duet' in opera – her Senta faced up to his physical awkwardness in a way that foreshadowed the decisive role she would play in Alden's feminist staging of the denouement. Luretta Bybee's Mary, by contrast, was the would-be enforcer of conformity who also senses the danger of art as she observes the effect of the Dutchman's portrait on Senta.

Rebecca Nash (Senta) © Philip Newton
Rebecca Nash (Senta)
© Philip Newton

Daniel Sumegi's cavernous bass and youngish demeanor made for a livelier-than-usual Daland, though this Senta saw through his crass materialism. The Steersman (Colin Ainsworth) became a much more active participant, returning in the final scene to watch the planned wedding party disintegrate into chaos, to which he contributed unhinged laughter.

One of Alden's most interventionist choices was to rewrite the character of Erik, sung with passion bordering on mania by the powerful tenor Nikolai Schukoff. Rather than the emblem of 'ordinary' love, Erik suffers another form of alienation. For once the irony of Senta's betrayal of her other betrothed, a dramaturgical point often ignored, hit home with full force. 

I've never heard the dark, almost monochromatic coloration of Wagner's score more effectively attuned to the "deeds of music made visible onstage" than in this performance. Lang-Lessing's forceful conducting and the magnificent contributions of the chorus reinforced this vision of a wounded interloper running aground to seek redemption in a society that itself is sick.