The fiendishly attractive Dutchman, black coat glistening with tiny ice crystals, long hair down past his shoulders, emerged from the shadows at front stage right in Leeds’ Victorian Town Hall, his first appearance in Act I. Low horn calls and writhing chromatic phrases from the strings brought us to his opening monologue, and by the time he reached “Niemals der Tod!” (“Death never comes!”) he was absolutely stunning and the hairs were rising on the back of my neck at least. It was a sign that this production of a relatively early music drama was going to be exciting, and that it would build well on Opera North’s recent great achievement, all four parts of Der Ring des Nibelungen in successive years.

Béla Perencz (The Dutchman) © Robert Workman
Béla Perencz (The Dutchman)
© Robert Workman

The principals are all from a stable set up at the beginning of the Ring project in 2011 – Béla Perencz, playing the doomed Dutchman, was an impressive Wotan in Die Walküre three years ago – and the Orchestra of Opera North is now appropriately seasoned, accustomed to the strictures and demands of the great composer. In fact, there is no doubt that Musical Director Richard Farnes can be described as one of the country’s leading Wagnerians, having established a tradition of excellence by working his personal magic on the considerable expertise available to him. In this production, as in previous ones, Farnes was never indulgent, never yielded to temptation, so every climactic fortissimo was carefully calculated, and there was just the right kind of narrative intensity as the music pulsed steadily like blood in a healthy body through each vein, artery and capillary.

Arterial red was a dominant colour for Peter Mumford’s concert staging, streaming down a huge sail of a screen on which was projected the predictable dark silhouettes of rigging and masts, together with white hands which might belong to the drowned (possibly a few too many of those) and close-ups of mesmerizing eyes which tended to become empty skull sockets. The narrow strip of performance space in front of the band was intelligently used, and the chorus, denied any chance of displaying its agility, was arranged in rows, women at the front, men at the back. It gave us some of the most memorable moments of the evening (Chorus Master Martin Wettges): the women began Act II – incidentally all the acts were run together, with no interval – with great panache and perfectly-enunciated words, their spinning wheels making a few shadows on screen as they gave us “Summ und Brumm, du gutes Rädchen” (“Hum and Buzz, good wheel”), and the men were equally effective, especially with a remarkably stirring “Steuermann, lass die Wacht!” (“Helmsman, leave the watch!”) at the start of Act III.

Opera North's <i>Der fliegende Holländer</i> © Robert Workman
Opera North's Der fliegende Holländer
© Robert Workman

Mats Almgren was a strangely sympathetic Daland with a rich deep bass, in spite of the fact that he sells off his daughter Senta to the treasure-laden Dutchman with no argument, a fine example of the commercially-minded worldly man to contrast with the unearthly man in black that Senta enthusiastically falls for anyway. How could she resist the ominous rival authority figure as portrayed by Perencz? Death can be so eerily seductive. The redoubtable Alwyn Mellor, born to be a Wagner principal, was Senta, and she got it just right at every level, from her sustained top notes to her ability to act – she was brilliant even when silent, gazing into those mesmerizing eyes on screen. Mati Turi can act convincingly too, though as her aggrieved boyfriend Erik, he was a touch too sweet and lyrical as he tried to yank her away from his cursed rival and keep her for what was perhaps also some kind of arranged village marriage. When she rejects the possibility of domestic peace and boredom with the honest, sturdy Erik, preferring to help her loved one to achieve peace in death instead, the problem of how to stage her cliff suicide is solved simply by not portraying it outside our imaginations, and it works.

Béla Perencz (The Dutchman), Mats Almgren (Daland), Alwyn Mellor (Senta) © Robert Workman
Béla Perencz (The Dutchman), Mats Almgren (Daland), Alwyn Mellor (Senta)
© Robert Workman

Opera North’s Der fliegende Holländer is much more than a project to merely examine Wagner’s influences at the beginning of his career, or an afterthought, a spin-off from the main body of work. It is a tight production which does full justice to an exciting music drama, and which should not be missed.