Tim Albery's staging of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer at the Royal Opera House should be renamed Die Frau Holländer. The plight of the Dutchman is as nothing compared to that of Senta, as she is condemned to a tragic life amongst a community of soon-to-be widows waiting on land. As this production concentrates on the grim aspects of the work, we are left praying for her liberation by any passing ship (or raft).
Der Fliegende Holländer is the first Wagner opera that sounds and feels authentically Wagnerian. The Dutchman has been condemned to sail the oceans of the earth until doomsday. His only chance for rest is to find a woman who will be faithful to him until death. While Heinrich Heine's inclusion of such a woman has been satirical, Wagner exploits this concept to explore his central theme; redemption through love, in line with the romantic idyll’s of Goethe's "das ewig weibliche" "the eternal feminine" in Faust. It is not for nothing that Nietzsche relished in mocking the "Senta-mentality" of Wagner.
Michael Levine's set is raw and un-intrusive, focusing on a curving plane that serves all three acts. It is casually abstract without being dull or cold. The appearance of Egils Silins dragging the weight of eternity in a rope over his shoulder distracts from what is otherwise a powerful "Die Frist ist um" yet failed to sustain much of a line. "Gepries'ner Engel Gottes, der meines heils bedingung mir gewann" is combined with the first appearance of Senta forcing the Dutchman to address her directly! The poor Dutchman is even denied his monologue. Silins gives what might be a purposefully subdued performance with interesting moments here and there. His duet with Senta is the highlight of his night but the departure of the Dutchman is unmemorable.
Anja Kampe’s Senta steals the show, and it’s Grand Theft. She delivers a sensational performance both vocally and dramatically. Her ballad is navigated with ease and her fearless desperation for getting on that ship is matched by her penetrating soprano. What a wonderful addition to the Royal Opera House family of performers and such a pleasure to have her again in this exhaustingly difficult role, with her mesmerising commitment.
Stephen Milling’s vocal performance is worthy, but he adopts a mono-dimensional character as Daland. Unfortunately Endrik Wottrich’s voice embarrassingly fails him in the last act with Senta after a passable run up. The surprise of the supporting cast is the Steersman by John Tessier, who delivers a wonderfully warm rendition of his love song. The chorus of the Royal Opera House is superb and deserves its ovation.
Jeffrey Tate’s hold on the orchestra gradually improves as the evening progresses, and although his overture has an exciting tempo, it still comes across as dull and fragmented – a pointless screen of wind and rain just distracted from the music rather than augmenting it - why? Both those elements are already in the score. Later on Tate establishes a clear and crisp sound from the players and enforces a controlled yet solid fortissimo, which is always a plus in this opera. The choice of the Dresden ending emphasises the bleak nature of a life with no redemption. It’s well worth seeing, especially as it should settle down later in the run and develop into a more coherent show.