“Let’s take it out for a spin.” That breezy idiom neatly describes both the look and approach of the new Der fliegende Holländer at the Prague State Opera. The set is constantly rotating, the characters circle each other warily and the production seems to float above the storyline, never quite settling into a gripping tragedy. Strong singing and a smart performance in the pit provide the heft that evades director Ole Anders Tandberg on stage.

Der fliegende Holländer
© Zdeněk Sokol

The opening is promising: the prow of a ship towers at an angle over the stage, giving Daland and his crew a storm-tossed deck, while below, in a darkened, quiet space, occasional glimpses of Senta engrossed in a large book foreshadow her obsession with the legend of the doomed Dutchman. But soon the prow starts to spin, revealing a tilted deck covered with rows of hospital beds – an odd choice for crew quarters, and the main set for the remainder of the evening. Everything happens on or around those beds, to the point where the main characters seem to be chasing each other through a maze.

The initial appearance of the Dutchman reinforces the off-color atmosphere. He shuffles in like a patient arriving for treatment, more infirm than afflicted. That pace and mien never change, with the postures of suffering growing more overt and outrageous, especially after his cloak comes off and he hangs on the deck rail half-naked, like a man nailed to a cross. In his detailed stage instructions for Holländer, Wagner said that the key to the title role lies in “arousing profound pity.” But that implies a touch of nobility, or at least a fall from grace, and there’s none of that in this portrayal. It’s more like watching a wounded animal that needs to be put out of its misery.

Joachim Goltz (Dutchman)
© Zdeněk Sokol

Senta fares better, thanks largely to a spirited performance by Norwegian soprano Elisabeth Teige, who will be singing the role at Bayreuth this summer. She strikes a convincing balance between naïveté and selfless devotion, and commands the stage in the solo spotlight, weaving a mesmerizing tale of the Dutchman’s curse. Teige’s strong acting skills complement a distinctive voice, notably rounded and colorful for a dramatic soprano, and in this role, imbued with passion and longing, a beguiling blend of strength and vulnerability.

Like the female chorus, Senta is clad in an all-black schoolgirl outfit – a strong visual contrast to the pristine white hospital beds, though incongruous for a group of marriage-age maidens. In general the costumes, a patchwork of traditional and avant-garde outfits, add to the unsettled feel of the production. When the Dutchman’s ghostly crew shows up in the third act, they look less like wraiths than revelers from the Kurentovanje festival in Slovenia. The dramatic impact of the piece is also undercut by streamlining that works well in some cases, like the “spinning” in the opening chorus of the second act invoking a whirling dance rather than actual spinning wheels. But if you don’t already know how the opera ends, it’s doubtful you would discern it in the bright, fairy-tale conclusion of this production.

Elisabeth Teige (Senta) and chorus
© Zdeněk Sokol

Though hampered by the stiff acting restrictions, German baritone Joachim Goltz gives a powerful performance as the Dutchman, plumbing serious notes of despair. There are lighter but no less riveting moments in his duets with Zdeněk Plech, who brings a crafty undertone to his portrayal of Daland. National Theater regulars Jana Sýkorová and Aleš Briscein make the most of their roles as Mary and Erik. And the superb State Opera Chorus outdoes itself in this production, with Daland’s all-male crew sounding sharp, high-energy blasts from the deck, and the women gliding through rich renditions of the maidens’ melodies.

Prague State Opera Chorus
© Zdeněk Sokol

Anchoring all this is a dynamic performance in the pit led by Karl-Heinz Steffens, who provides much of the depth lacking onstage with close attention to detail, expert pacing for the singers and powerful contrasts in the sound. The Dutchman would be nothing but pathetic were it not for ominous tones that emanate from the orchestra whenever he appears, like dark clouds gathering for an impending storm. And who knew that Wagner could actually sound cheerful in his brighter choral moments?

Alas, sometimes a surfeit of talent fails to bring a classic to life. And that’s the real tragedy of this production.