Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Flying Dutchman review – a strong cast excels in Wagner’s storm-lashed opera at The Royal Opera House

29 February 2024

Tim Albery’s staging weighs anchor once again and provides the perfect backdrop for some world class conducting, singing and playing.

The Flying Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman (Photo Tristram Kenton)

Maybe it was purely coincidental, but it seemed apt that Wagner’s operatic tale of a tortured ship’s captain, whose fate is to come ashore every seven years, should take place on 29 February in a leap year. First seen in 2009, this was the fourth outing for Tim Albery’s contemporary(ish) take on Wagner’s seafaring tale, and while certain aspects of its visual aesthetic now look dated, it showcased some outstanding performances.

Albery, along with his designers Michael Levine (sets), Constance Hoffman (costumes) and David Finn (lighting) create a murky world, mostly shrouded in darkness, where the action plays out continuously on a steeply raked platform that suggests the deck of the ship. The forestage is filled with water – on it sits a replica of a sailing ship, which acts as a focal point for Senta’s morbid fascination with the legend of the Flying Dutchman. There’s a brief respite from the pervading gloom, when serried rows of sewing machines descend from the flies for the women’s spinning chorus, but then we’re plunged back into darkness, save for a light bulb and two chairs which have to suffice for Daland’s home.

There’s definitely a whiff of the ‘70s about it, especially in the closing scenes where the townsfolk goad the Dutchman’s crew to make an appearance, which they do most effectively (no spoilers), garishly attired as if they were heading out for a night on the lash, which never jars, but neither does it add much to Wagner’s original. Thankfully, the singers are directed with a sure hand, and it’s good to see Senta portrayed as a young, vulnerable woman rather than the hysteric we often see.

“…while certain aspects of its visual aesthetic now look dated, it showcased some outstanding performances”

The Flying Dutchman

Bryn Terfel & Elisabet Strid (Photo Tristram Kenton)

Swedish soprano Elisabet Strid was making her house debut, and what an auspicious one it proved to be. The voice was well-centered, voluminous when required, and she coped admirably with the vocal demands Wagner makes. Much of the role lies above the stave and Strid managed the high notes well, only very rarely turning shrill – but it’s a killer of a role, and it was a pleasure to hear it sung with such musicianship.

Bryn Terfel returned to sing the title role once again, which he performed in this staging when it was new, and at every subsequent revival bar one. While the voice may not be as fresh as it was 15 years ago, few singers bring his amount of experience to the role, and his ability to portray the character’s world weariness, both dramatically and musically, remains unsurpassed today. Yes, there were moments when you could tell he was husbanding his resources, and at times some mezzo-voce singing didn’t quite go according to plan, but he was fervent in the declamatory outbursts, haunting in the quieter more introspective ones.

Stephen Milling did what he could with the role of Daland, and turned him into more of a cipher than usual, his rotund, dark-hued voice making light of the low-lying vocal lines. Toby Spence was overparted as Erik, while Kseniia Nikolaieva was a rich-voiced, if largely wordless Mary. Miles Mykkanen completed the cast, displaying a bright, well-schooled tenor in the small, yet pivotal role of the Steersman.

In the pit Henrik Nánási conducted superbly. His pacing throughout the 2 hours and 20 minutes duration never once faltered, and the ever-attentive players of the Royal Opera House Orchestra duly responded with impassioned playing – the brass section in particular covered itself in glory. And under William Spaulding’s direction, the augmented Chorus made a mighty sound, no more so in the ‘party’ scene – the perfectly-focused wall of sound they produced was electrifying.

• Details of upcoming performances can be found here.

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