Andris Nelsons followed up his 2012 Tristan und Isolde with a stirring performance of Wagner’s breakthrough work, Der fliegende Holländer, with a fine array of soloists and the CBSO in Birmingham.

Andris Nelsons conducting the CBSO © © Neil Pugh
Andris Nelsons conducting the CBSO
© © Neil Pugh

At a little over two hours, The Flying Dutchman is one of Wagner’s shorter operas, but it shares its supernatural themes with many of his other works. It was completed in 1841, between Rienzi and Tannhäuser, and takes its subject matter from legend, a satire by Heinrich Heine, and a stormy sea voyage to London endured by the composer whilst fleeing creditors in Riga. Also in common with several later works is the theme of redemption through love. In this case it is the self-sacrifice of Senta which saves the Dutchman from his curse to roam the seas eternally. This sacrifice, near the very end of the opera, was the highlight of tonight’s performance. Jennifer Wilson sang superbly all evening, and her declaration of eternal love for the Dutchman was hugely movingly.

Another key part in the opera’s more dramatic moments was the excellent CBSO Chorus. Their close support of the soloists’ material was frequently apparent. They remained seated when echoing the Dutchman during his first appearance, creating a wonderfully ethereal pianissimo, and the ladies’ expression of hope that the Dutchman find his woman was quietly angelic. Acts II and III both open with rousing choruses; the second begins with the ladies’ “Spinning Chorus”, which was given light and crisp treatment, somehow evoking the spinning wheels very effectively. The third act opens with another light-hearted single-gender chorus, this time the sailors’ drinking song, which was vigorous and full of testosterone, setting audience feet tapping and knees bouncing. The subsequent call for the Dutch to awake and join their celebrations carried tremendous power. It was surprising, then, that when the storm came the men were amplified through a large speaker above the stage. This created a slightly disconcerting discrepancy in sound (arguably effective, given the ghostly nature of the scene) but seemed unnecessary given the power displayed elsewhere. The percussion section’s wind machine also suffered the same fate.

The soloists were all excellent, but James Rutherford’s Dutchman and Jennifer Wilson’s Senta were easily the best. Both gave good depth to their characters: the Dutchman pitiable but powerful and Senta noble but loving. Rutherford’s first entry made the torment of his curse abundantly clear, and by contrast his excitement at finding a faithful woman (and therefore redemption) was quite compelling. Senta’s entrance in Act II carried a similarly pleasing contrast between the horrors of the Dutchman’s plight and the redemptive power of love, given a beautifully lyrical treatment. Rutherford and Wilson’s duet at the end of Act II was a steady realisation of love rather than an impassioned outpouring, which made the climax all the more thrilling.

The more peripheral soloists all had fine moments. Jane Henschel as Mary, the nurse, was suitably chiding and motherly, and Nicky Spence as the Steersman earned many chuckles in his inept watch-keeping in Act I. His more heroic moments, particularly his song to the south wind, were also good. Erik was very powerfully voiced throughout by Arnold Bezuyen. This made for convincing outrage at the possibility of Senta saving the Dutchman, but did little to earn him sympathy as her abandoned lover. His Act II interaction with Senta also seemed to drag at Nelsons’ pacing, and by the end of it Senta could easily be forgiven for wanting to escape her betrothal to him.

Daland is given music as superficial as his selling of Senta for material treasure. Alastair Miles sang very well within this, most notably in a fine duet with the Dutchman in Act I. He was perhaps the most guilty of some slightly inconsistent acting (always a difficult balance in a concert performance such as this), not showing even a flicker of recognition at the Dutchman’s asking for Senta. Other problems arose in Act III, where the staging gave no suggestion of the Dutchman overhearing the story of Senta abandoning Erik, or even of Senta throwing herself into the sea. Next to the quality of the singing, though, these were minor concerns.

Andris Nelsons directed a very polished performance from the CBSO, with particularly good playing from the horns and timpani. The offstage horns, placed antiphonally, high in the hall, worked well with the opening male chorus, and the orchestral accompaniment was unobtrusive but solid all evening. Their warm, reconciliatory tone in the final pages was followed by a beautiful moment’s silence before a prolonged ovation for an excellent performance.