PITTSBURGH — It had been 20 years since Pittsburgh Opera presented Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. And although the opening performance Nov. 11 was hardly cursed, it was subject to an all-too-common operatic twist of fate. Marjorie Owens, who was scheduled to sing Senta, had to cancel on short notice for health reasons. To the rescue came the rising dramatic soprano Alexandria Shiner.
There was the expected drama involved in finding a last-minute replacement in a hard-to-cast leading role. Earlier in the week, Shiner had been in South Africa participating in the Thirtieth Anniversary Edition of Operalia, the opera competition founded by Plácido Domingo. She flew directly from South Africa to Washington, D.C., arriving in Pittsburgh two days before opening night. Although there was time for rehearsal, the performance was the first time the American soprano had appeared onstage in the production.
Shiner can leave Pittsburgh with her head held high, as she not only saved the day but also gave a dramatically compelling and vocally exciting performance. The size of Shiner’s voice and its solid upper range were key to her success, but she also had two other things working in her favor.
First of all, the soprano is no stranger to high-profile assignments, having appeared as the First Lady in Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera in spring of 2023. More importantly, Shiner covered Senta for Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Dutchman earlier in the season. And in an only-in-opera turn of events, Shiner was sick for the first two performances of the Chicago run, and Owens was flown in to cover the cover.
In Pittsburgh, Sam Helfrich directed Wagner’s tale of a sailor condemned to sail the seas until he finds a faithful wife who will free him from his cursed fate. The backdrops for Helfrich’s cogent and atmospheric concept were Steven Kemp’s unit set and Ian Wallace’s video projections, which were first seen at Opera San Jose in 2018.
Kemp’s set is a wooden, box-like structure with doors on either side to permit access to the stage. The action has been updated to contemporary times, which would go all but unnoticed except for the women’s dresses and the Igloo coolers they carried to the festivities welcoming the sailors home. Costume designer Nancy Leary provided real visual oomph with eye-popping, bright-orange waders for the sailors.
All of this was incidental, however, to Wallace’s projections in creating place and mood. Wallace has mastered employing video to anchor the action without drawing attention from the music, singers, or drama. Heavy-handed film techniques can, and often do, swamp any or all of them.
The Dutchman’s ship emerged from a white cloud, which could just as easily have portended the appearance of the swan in Lohengrin. Menacing eyes — sometimes those of the Dutchman and othertimes those of a wolf — periodically glared at the audience. The latter weren’t intrusive, only a puzzlement.
Wallace’s concept was most effective when realistic, such as hazy footage of massive black ships passing in an ice-encased harbor. Dark magic is at the core of the story, however, and Wallace’s efforts in that realm were less potent.
Bass-baritone Kyle Albertson is garnering a reputation as a Wagnerian on both sides of the Atlantic, and his performance as the Dutchman left little doubt as to why. He cut a dashing figure with his long, flowing hair and sinewy physique, as suited to the Pirates of the Caribbean as to Wagner’s tragedy.
A good deal of the role sits in the upper part of the bass-baritone range, and Albertson’s voice has the requisite brilliance and ease to negotiate those vocal hurdles. Darkness and depth were also his to command in the lower range. Except for a momentary slip into despair when he thinks Senta has been unfaithful to him, this was a Dutchman intent on shaping his own destiny.
Wagner interjected comic relief into the opera with the character of Daland, the sea captain dazzled by the Dutchman’s riches and eager to wed his daughter Senta to the mysterious visitor. The glint in Peter Volpe’s eyes and a wicked grin, as Daland, drew laughs from the audience, while his fine bass impressed all on its own.
In a red-and-black flannel lumberjack shirt, Bryan Register made a physically and vocally imposing Erik. Register’s tenor has both dramatic thrust and beauty, which combined to make his retelling of a dream in which a mysterious stranger had carried Senta off to sea the most heartfelt scene of the performance.
Leah Heater displayed both a no-nonsense attitude and an imposing mezzo-soprano as Senta’s nurse, Mary. Tenor Daniel O’Hearn was an easy-going Steersman, whose shining voice and eager demeanor brightened every scene in which he appeared.
The real stars of the performance, however, were Pittsburgh Opera’s own forces. Kemp’s set was the perfect acoustical shell to showcase the company’s excellent chorus, prepared by Mark Trawka. The women sang a charming and playful “Spinning Song,” but the men’s rollicking, full-voiced singing of the “Sailor Song” was even more terrific.
Underpinning it all was the superb playing of the Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra. The brass, particularly the horns, were excellent. Antony Walker, the company’s music director, conducted with style and vigor, drilling into the emotional core of Wagner’s score.
An opportunity missed, however, came in the opera’s final scene when Senta and the Dutchman simply jumped off the stage and reappeared in white a few seconds later. It was puzzling as to why Wallace didn’t come up with a video effect to make the ending as magical as Wagner’s music. The cloud that had first brought the Dutchman’s ship into view would have been just the thing.
The Flying Dutchman continues at Pittsburgh Opera through Nov. 19. For tickets and information, go here.