When Bryn Terfel departed from Covent Garden’s Ring 18 months ago, a few weeks before opening, a bad case of sour grapitis did the rounds. Many said he was not missed and his replacement, the ageing John Tomlinson, was praised to the skies. In truth, Terfel’s Wotan was a towering creation, full of youthful vigour and fiery intensity, and the production was weaker without him.

Terfel is now back at the Royal Opera House, and again in a Wagnerian role. This is not his first Dutchman, not even in London – he gave several performances in David Pountney’s exceedingly odd Welsh National Opera production at the Coliseum three years ago – but Tim Albery’s production is all new.

Albery, and designer Michael Levine, use the slenderest and most suggestive of means to paint a world of grim reality and phantasmal mistiness. The set impresses when stark cross-lighting hits buckled steel and a ship-like structure emerges from the semi-dark but is less effective in the full light. Like the phantom ship, there’s basically not much there, although the simplicity of a total eclipse of the stage, as the Dutchman arrives, is a great effect.

Terfel’s sepulchral Dutchman staggers on, blasted by a side light and weighed down with a huge rope like an albatross tying him to his curse. Hans-Peter König is a strong Daland but we now know we’re in world-class company.

Anja Kampe’s Senta has a shakier start. A huge edifice descends, no cosy spinning wheel around the fire but row upon row of sewing machines, a factory that gives a strong sense of the drudgery of Senta’s existence. Trapping her behind a row of sewing benches for most of the Ballad, though, hampers both her and, later, the light-voiced Torsten Kerl as Erik. It may emphasise her captivity but also hinders the performance.

It is only with Terfel’s return to the stage that things lift and Kampe raises her game too. The meeting of Senta and Dutchman is riveting, beautifully sung by both and accompanied with playing of burnished beauty under Marc Albrecht’s baton.

Albery handles the crowds immaculately, although the sailors’ scene is staged as the sort of stags and slags piss-up (ugly in the young, more so in the middle-aged) that is fast becoming commonplace on the opera stage.

Using the Dresden ending means no salvation but a grim downbeat conclusion, with the Dutchman leaving while Senta collapses, her dreams dashed. Played as it should be, straight through without interval, this is two and a half hours that sags in the middle but also gives us a tasty appetiser of Terfel’s forthcoming Hans Sachs for WNO and (hopefully) his first Wanderer for the Royal Opera next time round.

Photograph: Clive Barda

- Simon Thomas

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