There were many operatic supernatural stories in early 19th-century Germany, most of which have disappeared from view, with the notable exception of Weber’s Der Freischütz, but they clearly had an impact on the young Richard Wagner, whose first masterpiece, Der fliegende Holländer, drew on this tradition. It opened the Darmstadt Staatstheater's new season, conducted by music director Will Humburg.

Krzysztof Szumanski (Dutchman), Astrid Weber (Senta) and the Opera Chorus of Staatstheater Darmstadt
© Wolfgang Runkel

The opera was given in a production from the Cologne Opera by Dietrich Hilsdorf, with the three acts run together without intervals. I am glad that I had read the interview with the director in the programme booklet before the performance to make sense of some of the unexpected directorial interventions. The most successful of these was the suggestion that Mary might previously have been associated with the Dutchman, which would explain the presence of his portrait. This back-story was hinted at during the overture when Senta’s obsession with the ghostly seafarer was established, to her nurse’s consternation. More questionable was the introduction of a devil, named Samiel (as in Weber’s Der Freischütz), a woman with two faces and prominently displaying sexual characteristics of both men and women. She preceded the Dutchman on his first appearance and somewhat took attention away from him. At the end there was no salvation. When Senta had shot herself with Erik’s hunting rifle, causing the Dutchman’s portrait to fall from the wall – a dramatic moment which made the audience jump – Samiel turned her attention to the hapless Erik.

Astrid Weber (Senta)
© Wolfgang Runkel

In many ways, however, this was a conventional production. It was definitely a ghost story and definitely a Romantic Opera, as Wagner termed it. The Dutchman and his crew were pallid and dressed in tattered clothes; we could imagine that they had been at sea for years. When they appeared towards the end of the opera, they ensnared the women in red clothes – the same as the one covering the portrait of the Dutchman. They distributed letters – a detail apparently taken from Heine’s telling of the story which was Wagner’s source. The opening scene of the opera was very atmospheric, dark and stormy. When the scene moved to Daland’s house we were very much in the 19th century as evidenced by the set and the costumes. The women were working at all stages of wool treatment, not just spinning. The curious machinery (bicycle powered!) suggested the early Industrial Revolution.

Krzysztof Szumanski (Dutchman) and Seokhoon Moon (Daland)
© Wolfgang Runkel
Astrid Weber

gave a very strong performance as Senta. An experienced Wagnerian, her singing of the Ballad of the Dutchman was beautiful and she controlled her powerful voice to create intense, quiet moments where required. Her infatuation with the legend of the Dutchman was never in doubt. Only at the very end of the opera were there a few uncomfortably strident moments. Unfortunately Polish baritone Krzysztof Szumanski’s Dutchman was not as successful, with many inaccuracies and a tendency to rely on volume to the detriment of any subtlety, although he was stronger when interacting with other performers, such as Seokhoon Moon’s excellent Daland. The scene between the Dutchman and the sea captain eclipsed the Dutchman's famous monologue.

The large chorus was excellent throughout and made a major contribution to the success of the evening, as did the orchestra whose stirring account of the overture set high expectations for the rest of the evening. They conjured up a stormy seascape for the opening and the blended with the female chorus nicely in their spinning song. They accompanied the soloists with delicacy when necessary. The smaller roles of Mary and the Helmsman were strongly performed by Elisabeth Hornung and Michael Pegher. Sadly this cannot be said of Marco Jentzch’s Erik, who was often inaccurate.

Despite some misgivings, this was a strong ensemble performance with all elements contributing to a gripping evening of music drama.