Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), Wagner’s tale of the cursed sea captain doomed to sail the open ocean for eternity, and the earliest of the composer’s operatic creations to remain in the repertory, sails onto The Metropolitan Opera stage in this co-production of The Met, the Dutch National Opera, the Abu Dhabi Festival and L’Opéra de Québec. François Girard’s production, which had its world premiere last July in Quebéc City, places the action in the head of Senta, the young Norwegian beauty obsessed with the mysterious portrait of the ill-fated Dutchman and drawn into his ghostly world.
The staging places the story in the 19th century and literally frames the action by adding a lower border to the proscenium, transforming the Met’s huge playing area into a gigantic, mostly monochromatic oil painting. For most of the opera’s two outer acts – when the prow of Daland’s huge ship comes in from stage right, opposite the rocky shore where the bedeviled mariner’s ship is moored unseen in the distance – dark clouds and foreboding mists loom over John Macfarlane’s towering and starkly beautiful set. The jagged coastline remains in place for the second act, when it is populated by women, hard at work and singing the ‘Spinning Chorus’ as thick, dangling ropes – suggestive of a ship’s rigging, with one designated for each singer – come down from above to represent the tangled skeins they weave.
The work’s otherworldly ambience is further spotlighted by the Dutchman’s ‘portrait’, represented throughout the opera by an enormous and woeful eye projected onto the screen at the rear of the stage. During the Overture, dancer Alison Clancy – a double for Senta – gazes at it as she twists and turns her body into exaggerated representations of yearning and obsession. Her movements are gracefully executed, but the dance itself is a gratuitous touch that reduces the impact of Wagner’s breathtaking music, which needs no theatrics to effectively call up visions of a storm-tossed sea, full of salt and spray, and its occasional patches of calm.
Moritz Junge’s costumes, which – with the exception of Senta’s flaming red dress – are mostly black, or brown and gray tinged, firmly anchor the action in 19th-century coastal Norway. David Finn’s dramatic lighting is also highly effective and greatly contributes to the bare beauty of the production. Peter Flaherty’s video projections are somewhat overactive and distracting during the overture, but more simply and effectively emphasize the brooding atmosphere of the story during rest of the opera’s three-act stretch. Carolyn Choa’s precise and highly restrained choreography adds a touch of polish and purpose to the choruses.
The musical strong points are many. While Valery Gergiev – on the podium for his first Wagner here since his 2005 Die Walküre – does not succeed in completely conveying the wonders of symphonic detail in Wagner's elemental and electrifying score, he quite effectively captures all its bombast and tension and manages to maintain the momentum of the drama for the two and a half hours that the opera is performed, without intermission, as the composer originally planned. Orchestral highpoints of the evening include the Overture which so perfectly depicts the sea’s billowing and crashing, and the savage storm raging round the Dutchman’s phantom ship in Act Three.
Heading up the vocal forces is Evgeny Nikitin as the ill-fated mariner, stepping in for Sir Bryn Terfel, who was forced to withdraw due to a broken ankle last month. The Russian bass-baritone has sung Wagner roles with the company before – including Gunther, Lord of the Gibichungs, in the 2018-2019 Ring Cycles and a well-received portrayal of the evil magician Klingsor in Girard’s production of Parsifal in 2013 and 2018 – but this is his first outing with The Met as the Dutchman. Unfortunately, he seems miscast in this, one of Wagner’s most enigmatic roles. An intimidating figure in a long black coat and black beard, he makes a promising and powerful start, rising to the challenge of ‘Die Frist ist um’ (The time is up), his despairing Act One monologue, a long account of the lonely mariner’s roving life. But as the evening ensues, his voice loses much of its power, and seems lacking in the vocal color and dynamic range needed to adequately navigate the role’s expressive possibilities. Overall his portrayal comes off as disappointingly stiff and graceless.
As Senta, the devoted young Norwegian girl whose self-effacing love is what the Dutchman seeks, Anja Kampe, a leading Wagnerian soprano who has sung the role to great acclaim throughout Europe, delivers a riveting star turn in her belated and highly anticipated company debut. In her opening Act Two ballad, the long and haunting ‘Traft ihr das Schiff ‘(There sails a ship), in which she sings about the man who is doomed to sail the seas forever, coming ashore every seven years, to find a wife who will be eternally faithful and keep him ashore – her richly-textured textured soprano immediately impresses with its blazingly powerful top notes, only to pull back to the purest piano in the softer, more meditative moments where her singing is tinged with an attractively wistful longing. In her Act Two duet with the Dutchman, ‘Wie aus der Ferne’ (As from a distance), she is absolutely ravishing. As her powerful voice slowly and gradually moves from a quietly hushed dynamic to pure exhilaration in the climactic high passages, the listener is swept away by the growing intensity of her ardor. Hers is an altogether standout performance, remarkable for fine acting as well as sensational singing.
As Daland, the Norwegian sea captain and father of Senta, Franz-Josef Selig is good-natured and solid, if somewhat subdued, displaying a stentorian bass that is consistently pleasing and resonant. In his Act One exchanges with the Dutchman, he maintains a distinct and notably eloquent vocal presence.
The gleaming, powerfully voiced Sergey Skorokhodov (whose only prior appearance at The Met was as part of the ensemble in The Nose back in 2010) proves to be a delightful surprise and a true vocal standout as Erik, Senta’s deserted fiancé. His firm and flexible tenor is most beautiful and moving in ‘Willst jenen Tag’s du nicht’ (Don’t you remember the day), the passionate Act Three cavatina in which he tries to convince his former lover to come back to him.
In the role of the young Steersman, charged by Daland with keeping watch, David Portillo shows off a bright, light tenor in his sweet Act One aria, ‘Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer’ (Through thunder and storm, from distant seas) in which he pines for the girlfriend whom he will soon see. In her company debut as Senta’s tough-edged nurse, Mary, Minooka Fujimura makes the most of her solid mezzo-soprano in her few appearances in Act Two.
The brilliant Met Chorus is in splendid form, especially the men, who sing with impressive power and magnificent tone throughout the evening. The group’s most thrilling singing is in the Act Three double-chorus when the human sailors attempt to drown out the supernatural voices coming from the Dutchman’s phantom ship.
In sum, this is a well-managed and highly satisfying production of The Flying Dutchman with many arresting moments – both visual and musical – that emphasize the drama in Wagner’s passionate and compelling tale.