Richard Wagner’s (1813-1883) early opera The Flying Dutchman is a dramatic musical story of redemption, and like many stories about redemption it is also a story about sacrifice. The ENO’s new production, directed by Jonathan Kent, glistens with brio and pizzazz, couched in an atmospheric though at times mildly overblown staging (the parrot astride a blow-up palm tree simulating sex with various tarts works; the attempted rape of Senta feels off key), with a well-balanced cast.
The story has its roots in a 17th century maritime legend about a Dutch sailor doomed to sail the ocean till Judgement Day unless he can find a way to atone for his transgression. His crime was to dare to declare he would sail round the Cape of Good Hope even if it took him till Judgement Day. The Devil overheard and took him at his word, damning him and his crew to sail until the end of time.
This ghostly subject proved popular to artists and audiences in the 18th century, while apparently sightings of the cursed ship persisted well into the 20th. The original tale went through many retellings both on stage and on the page, with different writers offering the Dutchman different forms of redemption. In the Heinrich Heine version Wagner drew from, the Dutchman is allowed to shore every seven years to seek a woman who will remain true to him until death. For Heine, who was critical of marriage, this was a fitting ironic invention: the relieved sailor was always glad to escape from matrimony and hasten back to his ship.
In Wagner’s hands though, the Dutchman’s plight becomes serious: he is the ‘Wandering Jew’ of the ocean, outcast and alone though seeking home. Though as Wagner recorded, this is no wily Odysseus to be saved by the domestic Penelope: the Dutchman symbolises a ‘break’ with the old world, a ‘transformed’ longing to seek adventure and discovery. He seems to have more of the spirit of Prometheus. It is the sailor’s epic determination that damns him, his challenge to the seemingly natural barriers that constrain him and his bid to know the unknown. Indeed, the particular way Wagner shapes the narrative shifts our sense of value. As audience, we only see the consequences: the Dutchman is alone and very much the visionary shut out of life, human and divine.
But at last, the Dutchman’s ‘longing for death’ forces him to seek out his redeemer in Senta, who symbolises ‘women intuited’, ‘a deeply feminine being’ or ‘the woman of the future’. Senta is the intense and almost unhinged daughter of a Norwegian sea captain, has obsessed over the legend of the long suffering Dutchman since she was a young girl, make-believing it is she who will save him. In Act 1, Senta’s father Daland, forced into a bay during a terrible storm, sees a fellow ship and agrees to let its captain, who sings of his weariness and want of a wife, ask for his daughter’s hand in return for the horde of treasure in the ship’s hold. There are deeper associations at play.
Wagner wrote that the sea in this period was an ‘arena of life’ where people’s anticipation for something ‘never before experienced’ could be expressed. It is fitting that the hero of this piece is a sailor. The sea is almost a character in its own right, both dramatically but also reflected vividly in the music, which laps around the characters’ feet, at times overpowering them. We begin and end this opera with the ocean, turning full circle from howling waves to calm waters. The music takes its temper and tempo from the sea, with its growling timpani thunder and the swirling chromatic whirlpools of strings. The sea also represents both the site of the Dutchman’s fateful aspiration and his current prison and jailer.
Senta also has especial connections to the sea, drawing out its dramatic significance as an amplifying chamber of the two characters’ almighty, earth-shattering passions. Senta’s obsession with the Dutchman almost draws him to her from his ship by the second act, while her violent rage at the sailors’ revelries in act three literally causes a violent maritime storm. Her final sacrifice that frees the weary sailor at the end of the opera, after she is wrongly accused of inconstancy with Erik, traditionally takes the form of Senta hurling herself from a cliff into the waiting waters, proving she is true till death after all - though in this production she stabs herself with a broken bottle at her engagement party.
Her desire to save the Dutchman is furthermore far from sublimated, and she is frequently described by others as having lost her senses. Like him, this ‘being mad’ sets Senta apart from the everyday world, signalling her perception of a deeper and perhaps more real set of feelings and ideas that just don’t fit, and are almost incomprehensible to those around her. Moreover, she is genuinely moved by the Dutchman’s suffering, and quite sincerely rejects the world around her to save him. This is pivotal to her character and to the plot, while her rejection of ordinary life and its expected fulfilments – embodied in her former lover, Erik – is exactly what ties her to the Dutchman. Both characters are set apart.
This is expressed in musical terms, too. Amidst tempestuous chords that refuse to settle firmly in major or minor, rising cleanly out of an undulating rhythm of swirling chromatics, the flying Dutchman’s majestic leitmotif rings out roundly from the trumpets. Senta’s beautifully hopeful musical depiction is meanwhile more sedate, in the oboes and flutes, innocent yet knowing with its surprising modulations and strange enduring quality. For this is also a story about loneliness and heroic isolation, the terrible burdens of the Promethean spirit and its dramatically dreadful price.
Here, Soprano Oria Boylan is the right mixture of heart-rending and heart-crazed, playing a shy teenager-like character with an unhealthy, pseudo-sexual obsession with the picture of a broody, damned Dutchman. She’s clueless and the butt of everybody’s jokes, at one point putting her pink cardigan over her head so nobody can see her face. Boylan saves up her full volume for one or two manic moments and sings the rest at an expansive mezzo piano, a compelling stage presence all through.
James Creswell’s Dutchman is oddly not quite as sustained in dramatic terms, so while his shadowy backstage presence could add to his mysteriousness and inner turmoil, foregrounding his spine-splintering angst and electrifying loneliness, we hear the full force of his resonant baritone a little too infrequently and usually not centred on the stage, which slightly unhinges the plot.
Nevertheless, there are some intelligent reworkings. In Act 2, rather than the traditional spinning, the women and Senta work on an assembly line making symbolic ships in bottles. Senta’s co-workers aren’t sympathetic at her being lost in love for the at this point fictional Dutchman, but caw and laugh, poke fun and make mock angels at her with their hands. The scene is expertly handled, its hen-like clucking the correct measure of vicious and unkind. Some actors are named in the programme, and it shows. Senta’s old lover Erik (a sympathetic Stuart Skelton) is no longer a huntsman but the factory foreman, all bumbling and humdrum. Likewise, Senta’s treasure-greedy father Daland (Clive Bayley) deserves a mention for his spirited performance and mahogany tones.
Senta’s sympathy as a character is enhanced by having her played – in the form of child in pink pyjamas – on stage for the entirety of the first act. The curtain opens to her perched on the end of a bed, in matching pink like the pink chair next to it which remains symbolically on the stage throughout the three acts. She clutches a red book: the tale of the flying Dutchman. This helps to focus our energies and gives pace to the psycho-sexual undertones running beneath this interpretation. Though it also gives just a bit too much weight to Senta. She is always present; we we see the Dutchman’s suffering mainly through her eyes. This jars a little with the way the Dutchman’s recognisable leitmotif always returns – usually in the major key - by cutting clearly through the turbulent, ambiguous chords: the staging is slightly at loggerheads with the music. Despite that, this is a thoroughly enjoyable and accomplished production, with assured performances all round.