Hungary is a landlocked country. In fact, Budapest is an awfully long way from the sea in all directions. So it’s not the first place you’d expect to come for a production of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman that is gloriously redolent of the sea, both in staging and in the orchestral performance. But that’s what we got last night at the Hungarian State Opera.

Dutchman and Senta © Pál Csillag and Tomas Opitz
Dutchman and Senta
© Pál Csillag and Tomas Opitz

Top plaudits go to the orchestra and conductor János Kovács. As it often does, the famous, brass-laden overture came through with plenty of propulsive force – you could hear the wind in the sails. But it was noticeable that the brass wasn’t just big: the playing quality was flawless, with entries perfectly together, smooth levels and a total absence of wavering or uncertain notes. And Kovács really impressed later on in the work, when he showed himself just as adept at lightening the tone: the country dance numbers whirled, and the Act II spinning chorus was played with delightful touch.

One of Wagner’s tricks in Dutchman is the music for Daland: every time the coarse and grasping sea captain appears, the music gets a little bit chirpy and rustic to portray the shallowness of the man. This came out in the orchestral playing quite wonderfully.

Alexandru Agache turned in an awesome performance in the title role, with a voice that was dark, authoritative and highly expressive of the ghostly character’s combination of power and despair. Agache’s voice had the quality that once he had started singing, you simply didn’t want the passage or aria to end. As Senta, Gyöngyi Lukács didn’t quite have the same burnished vocal quality – her loudest top notes tended to come with a hard edge – but she was able to match Agache note for note in power, which was quite a remarkable feat. Their duets were very, very exciting.

© Pál Csillag and Tomas Opitz
© Pál Csillag and Tomas Opitz

The other outstanding performance, both vocally and in acting, was Thomas Piffka as Erik (confusingly translated into Hungarian as “Georg”). Piffka’s singing was clear and melodious, reminding me of what Stuart Skelton’s comment that when Wagner wrote these vocal lines, he did so for bel canto singers because only bel canto singers existed. What stood out for me was Piffka’s characterisation of Erik as a man whose inner warmth and goodness resides in the skin of a rustic churl – a hopeless outsider, as far as the sailors are concerned, just as this production is successful in showing Senta as a complete outsider from the pack of sailors’ lasses.

This is the third opera I’ve seen in Eastern Europe in a month, and for the third time, I was struck by how the staging (by director János Szikora and set designer Éva Szendrényi), provided something fresh, new and visually exciting while doing nothing other than portraying what’s in the original opera. Wagner’s difficult stage effects for people calling across fjords, arrival of ships, etc were realised by video projection, and about the furthest Szikora strayed from Wagner’s stage directions was to turn the spinning chorus into a weaving chorus: dozens of golden straps were each tied to chorus members’ ankles at one end and held high by another singer, all set against a scaffold of strips of similar material which made you feel as if the whole stage were a giant loom. It was a brilliant tableau – indeed, all three acts started with great tableaux. The billowing effect in Act I was created by clever lighting of giant polystyrene structures surrounding the stage. In Act III, the curtain rose just a few feet to show us dozens of white wellington boots of the dancing sailors, electrically disco-white from ultraviolet light. Krisztina Berzsenyi’s costumes were good humoured, with both sailors’ and girls’ outfits sporting giant printed photos of their loved ones. Sailors’ outfits were stereotypically stripy, while the Dutchman and his crew (and later Senta) wore opulent appliqué robes in burnt orange, portraying both Dutchness and a sense of being from another epoch.

Der fliegende Holländer (Hungarian State Opera) © Pál Csillag and Tomas Opitz
Der fliegende Holländer (Hungarian State Opera)
© Pál Csillag and Tomas Opitz

To my Western European eyes, direction around the stage felt dated. The operating principle seemed to be that cast members were expected to be able to act and to sing, but never simultaneously (the exception, as noted above, being Thomas Piffka’s Erik). This felt to me like a missed opportunity, losing that last edge in portrayal of character. Another problem was generally indifferent German diction. Audience members would have struggled if they didn’t either know the opera very well or were able to read the Hungarian-only surtitles.

But these are minor quibbles in a fine and sympathetic production of a great opera. We had an orchestral performance to savour, a top class performance as Erik, and the raw power of the sailors’ chorus in Act II is ringing in my ears. An operatic night to remember.

****1