Arizona Opera is moving its orchestra out of the pit and onto the stage for this weekend’s performance of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman.”
The production might be the most stripped-down in the company’s recent history.
Staging and sets will be minimal. Videos and photos projected onto screens will depict the seaside town where the ghost ship docks and the Dutchman seeks to erase the devil’s curse that doomed him to roam the seas for eternity.
Choristers will sing from risers while the orchestra, led by conductor Joseph Rescigno, plays behind them; all of them will appear to be on the ship. Principal singers will perform mostly from front stage, mere feet from the audience.
But don’t mistake this for a concert performance, Rescigno is quick to note. With the minimal sets, acting and period costumes, “It’s very much like being a fully staged production,” he said.
“I wouldn’t suggest this for a Mozart or Puccini opera, but boy, it works great for Wagner and it works great for big Strauss pieces,” he said. “It’s very effective.”
Arizona Opera general director Ryan Taylor said the multimedia approach is partly motivated by financial concerns; it costs less to project images and video than to build enormous sets like the giant ghost ship the company used the last time it mounted “Dutchman” in 2006.
But the company, which Taylor inherited last spring, put just as much emphasis on the artistic side.
“What I really love about this is three of the members of this cast” — including soprano Lori Phillips and baritone Mark Delavan, — “appeared in the Met’s recent ‘Ring’ cycle and these singers are maybe a foot and a half from the front row,” Taylor said. “We managed to do something that is different and very cool and saved the company money.”
Of all the Wagner operas — the pinnacle, of course, being his behemoth “Ring” cycle — this one is perfectly suited for stripped-down treatment, said Rescigno. The music is so powerful and made even more impressive with the performers so close to the audience that it doesn’t take long before you get swept into it all and forget what’s missing.
“Would I rather have a real set? Yes. But this is interesting,” Phillips, who is singing the role of Senta, said last week before the production opened in Phoenix. “It’s working out pretty nicely, actually.”
But Phillips said she was worried that the multimedia would fill in the blanks normally filled in by the audience’s imaginations.
“Everything doesn’t have to be explained on a silver platter. The plot doesn’t have to be served up; people are smart. They can figure it out,” said Phillips, a rising star of the New York Metropolitan Opera who is making her third appearance with the Arizona Opera.
Phillips has been singing the role of Senta for more than a dozen years, including making her Met debut in the role three years ago.
“I met my husband singing it 13 years ago,” she said. “I love Senta. She lives on a different plane than anybody else. … She is a beautiful character.”
Will that beauty be lost in the multimedia mix of Arizona Opera’s production? Phillips doesn’t think so.
“Because this piece is so about the music. The music is so beautiful. A lot of it is quite lyrical,” she said. “I think that it’s going to work very well. I don’t think it’s going to diminish a thing.”