The Flying Dutchman at the Royal Opera House review: Bryn Terfel is marvellous as the doomed sailor

Bryn Terfel in The Flying Dutchman at the Royal Opera House (Tristram Kenton)
Bryn Terfel in The Flying Dutchman at the Royal Opera House (Tristram Kenton)

Compared with contemporary dramaturgy, especially in both Britain and Germany, Tim Albery’s production of The Flying Dutchman was already looking old-fashioned when it was new in 2009.

Stripped down to the essentials of the myth as it is, however, it straddles the archetypal and modern-day divide with undeniable skill. A palpable lack of vocal firepower in the lead roles seems less of a disadvantage in an introspective reading such as this than it might otherwise.

To the role of the accursed, tormented Dutchman, Bryn Terfel (who sang the role in 2009 and in the 2015 revival) brings a voice now shorn of much of its erstwhile lustre, yet revealing the agony at the core of the character.

As he makes landfall for the umpteenth time (the mythical character is doomed to sail the seven seas until eternity on account of a blasphemous oath), he lurches forward, supported by an anchor rope, visibly exhausted by his endless voyaging. But Terfel marvellously captures the Dutchman’s world-weariness too and at the centre of the depleted tone there’s a lacerating incisiveness.

With the aid of Michael Levine’s effectively spare set (essentially a steep rake in the form of a sail), lit imaginatively by David Finn, Albery surrounds the character with an otherworldly aura. The sphere of the ‘real’ world, for later scenes involving the community of sailors and the various women in their lives, is skilfully delineated by the seeping in of colour.

 (Tristram Kenton)
(Tristram Kenton)

Senta, the young woman who yearns to bring salvation to the Dutchman’s soul, is sung here by the Swedish soprano Elisabet Strid, who may, for some tastes, lack the potency of a traditional Wagnerian dramatic soprano. What she does offer, though, is an aptly searching tonal quality and a range of expression in her Ballad that one too rarely encounters. She also nails the taxing top notes both there and at the end of the opera.

The long exchange for the Dutchman and Senta is not a conventional love duet: indeed the former explicitly denies he’s experiencing any such emotion, while the latter is more intent on pledging her fidelity even unto death.

Albery’s staging neatly suggests this dispassionate commitment with a final half-embrace, the Dutchman awkwardly avoiding Senta’s attempt at a clinch. I also admired the way the two singers handled the outmoded cadenza with which the youthful Wagner brings the first part of the duet to a conclusion, demonstrating how it can be done with expressive subtlety.

In other roles, Miles Mykkanen’s appealing Steersman caught the sailor’s longing for his girl back home, Stephen Milling’s bluff Daland was ideal for the rough-hewn sea captain, Toby Spence’s attractive voice sounded disappointingly constrained as Erik, and Kseniia Nikolaieva bustled congenially as Senta’s nurse (and factory forewoman) Mary.

As the rival Dutch and Norwegian crews, as well as the latter’s girlfriends, the members of the Royal Opera Chorus were on terrific form. As was the orchestra under Henrik Nánási, who enabled the lead singers’ introspective approach, even at the risk of occasional sluggishness.

There was no lack of energy, however, in the climactic stages of the work, with a long-awaited shift from cerebral mode to blazing drama.

Royal Opera House, to March 16;