The Royal Opera – Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer – Bryn Terfel, Elisabet Strid, Stephen Milling & Toby Spence; directed by Tim Albery; conducted by Henrik Nánási

Der fliegende Holländer – Romantic Opera in one Act [sic] to a libretto by the composer after Heinrich Heine’s Aus den Memoiren des Herren von Schnabelewopski [sung in German with English surtitles]

The Dutchman – Bryn Terfel
Senta – Elisabet Strid
Daland – Stephen Milling
Erik – Toby Spence
Mary – Kseniia Nikolaieva
Steersman – Miles Mykkanen

Chorus & Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Henrik Nánási

Tim Albery – Director
Michael Levine – Set Designer
Constance Hoffmann – Costume Designer
David Finn – Lighting
Philippe Giraudeau – Movement

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 29 February, 2024
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Der fliegende Holländer is usually acknowledged as the first of the canon of Wagnerian music dramas, if simply because the composer regarded it as an artistic turning point, disowning any continuities with his three previous operas. But it certainly is the first to be so imbued by the quintessentially Wagnerian theme of the need for redemption through the love of man and woman (or even the redemption of a man by a woman). 

As has become a fashion in recent stagings, the opera is presented by the Royal Opera House here in its earliest version, in one continuous Act. But there’s no real warrant for returning to what was essentially the first complete draft of the score, as Wagner subsequently revised it to create the more definitive three Act structure with clear pauses, and never reverted to its earlier form. Tim Albery’s production hardly sustains interest for an unbroken two-and-a half hours, and it’s hard to see what insight into the work it offers that it now merits no less than a third revival since its first showing in 2009. The one point it seems to make – and not even provocatively or sardonically at that – is to belittle that concept of redemption born out of a desperate existential condition. Albery appears to be prompted into that by ironically taking the Dutchman at his word in the monologue on his first appearance, when he explains his predicament and recalls the vision of a saving angel, asking if that ethereal being was just mocking him in showing the way of redemption. 

The production disclaims any sense of the elemental or sublime by setting the action on an oddly concave portion of a sea vessel, sloping upwards away from the stage and decidedly stationary. There is no hint of its being seaborne, nor of the ocean itself – only a paddling pool’s worth of water lies at the stage’s front, to suggest an essentially petty, infantile dimension to the drama played out, as also does the toy schooner floated upon it. The electric fans suspended above the set in the first and last scenes also imply nothing more threatening than a cool breeze, rather than howling sea storms. The weaving women appear at work in neat rows of sewing machines in a clothing factory from some era around the 1970s (it calls to mind the textile factory of Coronation Street perhaps) and Senta’s dream of the Dutchman is little more than the delusional fantasies of a young woman seeking to escape from such a humdrum environment. Her actual encounter with him, when Daland presents him as the man she is to marry, is like a coy, awkward tryst between two shy teenage lovers, and has all the charm and subtlety of a scene in a soap opera. The nearest we get to the elemental is during the Overture with a rippling curtain and a periodic rainfall; but, carried on continuously for ten minutes or so, it becomes a wearisome distraction and is about as tempestuous and fearsome as a soggy day on the esplanade of a resort on the English Channel.

Understandably, Henrik Nánási’s conducting of the score is not inspired by that scenario to become anything very powerful or driven during the Overture’s course. Things become noticeably more dramatic within the opera itself, but even then that tension isn’t really sustained across the whole performance – partly because Wagner’s music itself waxes and wanes, lacking momentum in the connecting sections. As he had not yet quite attained the skill of sustaining a musical argument over such a comparable timespan as in Das RheingoldHolländer does call out for the division into three Acts with the natural breaks in between. Sagging tension and a somewhat indifferent ROH Orchestra in this performance make it feel like a numbers opera still, as Rienzi before it.

Bryn Terfel’s vocal craggy heft conveys the world weariness of the title role, having already wandered the seas for countless years – if there’s a growl on the edge of some of his long notes, and others bend under their own weight, that aids the cause of his musical characterisation. Elisabet Strid makes her ROH debut as Senta. Her Ballad is teasingly wayward, rather than expressed with utmost yearning and urgency, but her performance takes on more earnestness afterwards within her small, though finely honed voice. Stephen Milling brings a down-to-earth force as the rather mercenary Daland, his well-rounded notes embodying some humour and levity. Taken with Nánási’s buoyant pointing up of the duet with the Dutchman as Daland fixes things for the marriage of his daughter to him, there’s almost a Verdian jauntiness in this interpretation. Toby Spence is somewhat stretched in Erik’s higher range and, whether by design or accident, makes the character sound ineffectually whining as Senta’s spurned lover. Kseniia Nikolaieva displays more mettle as Mary. The unequivocal musical success is the ROH Chorus, especially the men as the sailors, who provide the real vigour and rough-hewn vim that this seabound work requires. 

It’s a pity that neither performance nor the production attain a profound engagement with the opera’s themes. Albery’s interpretation may bear the ironically detached temper of the story by Heine that the opera is based upon, in dealing with ideas of accursed yearning and searching for redemption. But it’s not the grand, heroic fervour of Wagner.

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