Every spring for the last ten years has seen the "Wagner in Budapest" opera festival, started and directed by conductor Adam Fischer. As a Festival within a festival, a Ring Cycle is included every year, together with other Wagner operas, which vary from year to year. The 2015 festival is the first to include The Flying Dutchman, seen here in its original 1841 version (premièred in 1843), which differs from the 1860 version by excising the redemption scene. In spite of an inventive orchestra and a cast which cast which was thoroughly convincing vocally, Balázs Kovalik's production doesn't really work, abounding as it does with ideas little connected to the essence of the work. In sum, an interesting evening musically, but a debatable staging.

© János Posztós/Müpa Budapest
© János Posztós/Müpa Budapest

The Flying Dutchman is a one act opera structured as three "short" scenes which are able to be shown with interval, which is the choice made by the Budapest festival. Coming into the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall at the Palace of Arts, surrounded by walls with softly coloured wood panelling, one sees on the stage a structure also made of wood which depicts the elegant frame of a boat, created by giant ladders attached together. The first impressions are good! The first notes played by Magyar Radio Symphonics (also known internationally as the Budapest Symphony Orchestra) immediately make you marvel: the hall's acoustic is truly exceptional. It's not dissimilar to the acoustic of the recently built Paris Philharmonie: its amplifying resonance is mellow and perfectly rounded, allowing the difference timbres to coalesce into an flexible but integrated whole. The orchestral texture – and this was the case for the whole opera – sounds very romantic, but in an early 1800s way, replete with Italian and classical influences. And that's surprising: when we think about and listen to Wagner, we usually have in mind his later operas, with the full luxuriant orchestral sound that we label "Wagnerian". In contrast, The Flying Dutchman is an opera richer in its influences, which are varied, glittering, interwoven and fascinating to study) than in pure lyricism. It's as if Fischer's conducting, with help of this orchestra and this wonderful hall, has revealed the nature of the work, its inner essence, lear enough in form but often neglected by those who drown it in a stylistic synthesis which abuses Wagner's style. The strictness with which Adam Fischer has treated the score of The Flying Dutchman is an approach of genius, a true homage to Wagner.

© János Posztós/Müpa Budapest
© János Posztós/Müpa Budapest

By contrast, the visuals of the production appear hard to reconcile with the essence of the opera. Director Balázs Kovalik has chosen to accentuate various aspects of the work to turn them into symbols of a simplistic global ideology. So the framework is of a patriotic, male chauvinist Norway in which the men – whether business people, or nationalists wrapped in the colours of the flag – are more proud of their country than of what's right, and think themselves so irresistible that they have no hesitation in raping the women (an extremely strange scene which hasn't much to do with the rest of the piece). The women are materialist; their only desire to see their husbands come back from the sea is for the presents they will bring at their return, with the clear exception of Senta who is idealist, dreamy, an overgrown adolescent who loves a star opera singer whom she idolises without having ever seen him, who turns out, of course, to be none other than the Dutchman. Taken in isolation, each of these ideas has something to be said for it; but when they are all stacked end to end, they lose meaning and interest. In particular, their realisation is sadly lacking in charm, Other than the moving wooden structure, slender and replete with possibilities, the rest of the set construction is mediocre, leaving aside the costumes which are more ridiculous than evocative (Senta in leggings and pumps).

© János Posztós/Müpa Budapest
© János Posztós/Müpa Budapest

This seems to explain the somewhat unauthentic feeling of the acting. To be precise, it's not that they're acting badly: it's that they're acting false - trying to make their characters depth, but choosing mimicry and gestures which are not natural. Elisabet Strid, as Senta, gesticulates either too much or not enough (being completely static at the point where the Dutchman is to leave forevor). Fortunately, her interpretation lies in the voice: powerful, sometimes close to madness and highly charismatic (in spite of disappointingly frequent overuse of forte or fortissimo). Her accursed lover, the Dutchman, is sung by James Rutherford, whose voice rivals Strid's in power and surpasses it without question in expressivity, with terrifying lows and a captivating sense of line, an astonishing vocal incarnation of his character. Peter Rose (Daland) and Bernadett Wiedermann (Mary) play their parts admirably, if without sustaining continual dramatic tension, Zoltan Nyari's Erik is a shade dull over the stretch of the full opera. The helmsman, Uwe Stickert, provides a voice of attractive sweetness and rounded tenderness. The Magyar Radio chorus lets the acoustic of the hall do its job, and produce unexceptionable results, especially the men, galvanised by their role. All in all, the musical performance of this Flying Dutchman holds water and holds its own against the vagaries of a staging which has the merit of making one think about the work, but disappointingly gets in the way of its true nature: dark, tragic, mythical and thus outside the rational.