Home / Opera / The Flying Dutchman – ENO, London Coliseum

The Flying Dutchman – ENO, London Coliseum

Composer: Richard Wagner

Director: Jonathan Kent

Reviewer: Natalie Barker


The Flying Dutchman was the perfect opera for a blustery April evening. There was a knowing laugh from the audience when the Norwegian sailor, Daland, sang of sailing over the rough seas; ‘such furious weather cannot last’. With regards to current meteorological conditions, one would certainly hope not. Wagner’s opera is more than just a study of poor weather conditions though. It takes the myth of the ghostly Flying Dutchman – a sailor is cursed by Satan to sail the seas eternally unless on one of his seven-yearly jaunts to the mainland he can win the faithful love of a woman – and turns it into a romantic fairy tale with a tragic ending.

The opera begins with a small girl on stage who watches as her sailor father leaves her to return to the sea. She has her story book and toy boat and is soon imagining rough seas and crashing waves. A digital display conjures a ghostly ship and the face of the legendary Dutchman in what is an exciting set-up for the story to come. The child’s bedroom remains on stage when the set changes to Daland’s boat; we are now in the realm of the fairy tale. But the energy and excitement portrayed in the girl’s vision dissolves when we first see the Dutchman. His ship crashes onto the stage but then we see him emerging from the girl’s bed only to take a leisurely seat at the end of it and sing about the action of the rough seas and the diabolical journey he has had in a completely static position. For my money I’d expect a bit of dashing about the stage to illustrate the point.

Other scenes do manage to heighten the drama but James Creswell’s Dutchman remains inert and wooden. Yes, the singing is primarily what an opera is about but Creswell proceeded as if he was taking part in a semi-staged version of The Flying Dutchman and not the same performance in which everyone else was engaged. The scenes in which Orla Boylan’s Senta dominates are the most thrilling. But where I can believe Senta’s passion as she throws herself about the stage with gusto, I can also believe in the ghostliness of the Dutchman – he certainly doesn’t have much flesh and blood humanity about him. Perhaps this is all part of the set-up as this performance seems to be going to some lengths to convince us of the everyday reality into which the Dutchman has stumbled. Senta is a factory girl and we see her among her fellow workers on the ship-in-a-bottle production line (a nice touch and an echo of the toy boat in the first scene). She brandishes the story book, which we first saw in the hands of the little girl, and daydreams of the Dutchman who to her is a mysterious brooding stranger longing for a woman’s love to save him.

So the Dutchman dressed in his frockcoat hails from the world of the fairy tale, momentarily fulfils Senta’s obsessive fantasy, and then returns to his world having wreaked havoc. This may have hung together as a story in an age of superstition but it is altogether more complicated post Freud. Indeed, Freud had a lot to say about myths and ancient stories and I suppose we could call the delusion that one’s love has the power to save the love object from the devil, the Senta complex. One can’t help but read more into this than ‘strange things can happen’. I feel that Senta’s tragedy, rather than being sublime, is tinged with the ridiculous as she stands in a factory singing about a character in a fairy story and claiming ‘I’ll go with him to the abyss’. But this shouldn’t detract from the excellent sung performances and some standout scenes – the pirate fancy dress party is a real treat. The interpretation of this opera leaves us with a lot to think about precisely because it doesn’t fit neatly into the form into which it has been shaped.

Photo: Alastair Muir

Runs until 23rd May

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One comment

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    Richard Voyce

    I went on Saturday evening with my partner and a friend. All of us admitted to having nodded off at one point or another. Why was it presented without intervals? We has to sit for 2 hours 20 minutes at a stretch. Not a pleasant evening, given what was happening on stage…