As The Flying Dutchman nears its close, the crew of Daland's ship are celebrating their safe homecoming and yelling at the Dutchman's unseen crew to join them. To their horror, they realise that they have indeed woken the dead: the Dutchman's crew are ghosts who have wandered the oceans for centuries: the storms cannot burst their sails for they are protected by Satan.

Egils Silins as Der Holländer © The Royal Opera / Mike Hoban
Egils Silins as Der Holländer
© The Royal Opera / Mike Hoban

At last night's performance, the Covent Garden chorus were on top form, and that scene was climactic and breathtaking. At its heart, The Flying Dutchman is a good, old-fashioned gothic ghost story; what makes it special is Wagner's ability to conjure up atmosphere from its music. He was inspired by hearing stories from sailors during a dreadful voyage from Riga to London which lasted three weeks instead of the planned eight days: with his peculiarly obsessive nature, he threw himself into the subject, the result being a musical rendering of stormy seas and sailors' lives which catches every detail and is supremely evocative. Another Wagner obsession was Weber's overture to Der Freischutz (also a supernatural tale), and this shows in a series of glorious horn parts.

The opera was performed in one act with no intervals (as Wagner originally conceived it). In two and a half hours of continuous music, conductor Jeffrey Tate never permitted the pace to flag and brought out the full impact of Wagner's rich score. Whether it be the seascapes, the ghostly, the sailors' dances or the love scenes, the music never failed to entrance. Amongst the singers, Stephen Milling was outstanding as Daland, with a bass voice that was deep, powerful and perfectly articulated, all the while displaying the character's coarse cheerfulness. The evening's singing was generally notable for the diction: all the main singers had big voices, but you could make out every word. Eglis Silins came close to matching Milling's firepower and grew in stature towards the end of the opera as the Dutchman reveals his true nature and the anguish within him. I mostly enjoyed Anja Kampe's performance as Senta, although it was marred by massive use of vibrato.

As a piece of music, the work's qualities are unquestionable; whether it works as a piece of drama depends on how you feel about the genre. If you're happy to lose yourself in the gothic supernatural, it works just fine, but I had to force myself not to think about the plot or the characterisation too hard. Tim Albery's production is long on atmosphere and short on detail: some parts worked very well indeed, some less so. The set consists of a steeply raked stage painted as the outside of a modern cargo ship, complete with portholes and ropes, giving a generally nautical feel as long as you don't stop to question why the ship has turned over on its side. The set for the middle section was more effective, with the spinning wheels in Daland's house transmogrified into sewing machines in a clothing factory. On-stage movement varied from top class (the sailors' chorus, brilliantly depicting both drunkenness and fear) to bad (Senta and the Dutchman's duet, where they hardly looked at each other and the movement around stage seemed totally disconnected from the words and music). David Finn's lighting was notable for there not being very much of it: for a great deal of the opera the stage was in darkness with only the odd point of light. There was one fantastic lighting trick, though: the appearance of the ghostly ship was simply represented by a shadow moving from right to left across the stage.

But the most important things worked. We had an outstanding performance of the music, one of the best bits of chorus singing I've heard in a long time, some top notch Wagnerian singing and a production which, in spite of the odd defect, brought out a powerfully atmospheric nautical ghost story. And as I write this, the Dutchman's leitmotif is still ringing in my ears.

***11