The Flying Dutchman, which had its premiere in Dresden in 1843, initiated Wagner’s move away from the then standard opera forms into his own style of music-drama. Smaller in scale than his later works, running around two and a quarter hours without intermission, it is a focused and intense experience, both thematically and dramatically arresting.
The story, based on a tale by Heine, has roots in legend. Wagner mentions both the Wandering Jew and Odysseus as sources of his character. The opera’s seminal theme of redemption, along withits love triangle, provides the essence of romantic melodrama, transformed by Wagner’s stirring music intoa timelessexpression of musical theater art.
The Dutchman, a sea captain, when faced with daunting storms, swore he would sail for all eternity if necessary to reach his destination. Be as careful in what you swear as you should be in what you wish for: in a Faustian turn, Satan condemns the Dutchman to sail the seas forever, with his only hope for redemption the unconditional love of a woman.The Dutchman is allowed to go ashore once every seven years to seek the woman whose love will save him from his tortured purgatory.
The opera opens as the Dutchman sails into a bay in Norway for his periodic chance at finding the woman whose love will deliver him from his fate. He encounters a local ship captain, Daland, who has an eligible daughter and he offers Daland treasure in exchange for permission to court her.Senta, the daughter, is already intrigued with the legend of the Dutchman, even before having met him. When she does meet the captain she pledges her faith to him, determined to save him.
But Senta’s romantic longings are countered by her existing bond to Erik, a local huntsman who continues to woo her. Thinking Senta has betrayed him, the Dutchman sails off. Senta throws herself into the sea saying, "Here I stand, faithful to you until death." They are then seen rising to heaven together.
The Paris Opera’s production, currently at the Bastille, is a revival from 2000, directed by Willy Decker, with sets and costumes by Wolfgang Gussman. Conceptually, it is a very strange interpretation, indeed. There is one unit set which has two massive walls meeting on the diagonal. In one wall is a door several stories high. In the other wall there is an opening to a further recessed wall on which hangs a large painting of the sea–a seascape of the quality usually left in the dark, back hallways of the Louvre where undistinguished works languish. For certain effects, the painting, a scrim, is back lit to provide other images, such as the blood red sail of the Dutchman’s ship. The overall interior space is the setting both for scenes with the ship’s crews and for Daland’s household. The arrival of Daland’s ship is signified by having the crew/chorus haul in through the door long mooring ropes.
It is difficult to guess what Decker and Gussman thought this visual interpretation would add to the drama of the evening. The absences are more easily noted. With the painting as the only visual image of the sea, the central importance of the sea and the ships to the story, both literally and metaphorically, is irreparably diluted. This is a Flying Dutchman that has gone aground, visually speaking. Within the confines of the set, there is no way to portray Senta jumping from a cliff into the sea, so Decker has her stab herself instead. It is a departure from the libretto that once again weakens the important metaphorical role of the sea. Nor does Decker choose to visually suggest the couple rising to heaven, closing by leaving a sole member of the chorus looking at the painting of the ship. This is subtlety carried to a counter-productive extreme.
All that said, the production’s shortcomings did not matter in the least for the success of the evening. The superb quality of the soloists, the chorus, the orchestra and the conducting transcended the inexplicable visual tinkering and delivered an evening of riveting, world-class musical drama. Albert Dohmen’s rich bass-baritone instrument, combined with a fervent and convincing reading of the role of the Dutchman anchored the center of the drama. American dramatic soprano Susan Anthony offers a voice of clarity and power, able to soar above the orchestra in climactic moments seemingly without strain and free of harshness of tone. Her extended first act duet with Dohmen was powerfully gripping, its climax as thrilling a moment of opera as can be imagined. Kim Begley, with a ringing heldentenor, made a sympathetic Erik, the rejected suitor.
Conductor Daniel Klajner, substituting for ailing James Conlon, gets here the kind of break of which young artists dream–in an assignment of daunting complexity, he controlled the large orchestra, full chorus, and principals with steadiness, power, and commendable musicality, without ever losing the thread of the drama or the importance of the quiet moments that put the big blowouts into relief.
A sold out house was clearly and justifiably enthusiastic about the evening’s music, an example of musical drama at its best, relegating the foolishness of flawed production gimmickry to the position of an unimportant footnote.