As heavy fog settles on the huddled figure of Erik sitting in the middle of the stage during the overture, there is an annoying sound that is out of place: water dripping. The loud dripping noise jars dissonantly with the last chords of the emotive overture. It continues intermittently throughout the opera, most likely to replenish the supply of the backstage stream through which everyone must splatter in order to reach the stage. The dismal wet atmosphere it creates aptly sets the tone for the entire piece, throughout most of which Erik remains present somewhere in the shadows.

Thomas Blondelle (Erik) © Thomas Jauk
Thomas Blondelle (Erik)
© Thomas Jauk

Stage director Christian Spuck gives the characters not even a speck of hope for personal happiness throughout the nonstop two and a half hour long drama. Spuck, a dancer and current head of the Zurich Ballet, choreographs the protagonists and the excellent chorus (directed by Raymond Hughes), often creating living pictures. It is up to the singers to give their figures the emotional depth they express vocally.

Even though Daland gives his blessing over the union of his daughter and the stranger who will make him a rich man, it is clear from the beginning that no one will find love or fulfilment in this cruelly egocentric narrative. Everyone is doomed and it is no wonder that Senta takes Erik’s hunting knife in the last scene and commits suicide, even as the Dutchman wades off through the waters onto the sea. In the end, Erik assumes his same huddled position as in the beginning, watching over a model sailboat.

Samuel Youn (The Dutchman) © Thomas Jauk
Samuel Youn (The Dutchman)
© Thomas Jauk

For all the doom and gloom on stage, there is brilliance in the pit. Donald Runnicles drove the orchestra relentlessly, often mistaking high decibels for high passion, but no matter, this Wagnerian score can take it. And so could the singers.

Swedish soprano Ingela Brimberg, with her clear ringing voice, was fully convincing as the young girl Senta, in love with a myth. Her final commitment to the Dutchman, swearing her faithfulness beyond death, was especially full of heart-wrenching emotion. Tenor Thomas Blondelle was equally authentic in his love for Senta, with his slightly hysterical hope to be able to save her from the fate, which she had chosen for herself.

Ingela Brimberg (Senta) © Thomas Jauk
Ingela Brimberg (Senta)
© Thomas Jauk

Samuel Youn, as the sinister Dutchman, seemed indisposed, his voice often insecure. No doubt he will fill out the role in future performances. He garnered great success singing the role in Bayreuth in 2012. Tobias Kehrer's Daland was a resplendent opportunist. His warm baritone sounded strong but shrewd, not believing his good fortune at having found a husband for his daughter and earning great riches. Ronnita Miller portrayed a very believable Mary intent on keeping the womenfolk in check during their men’s long absence. Matthew Newlin’s light and youthful tenor as the Steersman added to the almost comic antics he was made to go through by Daland and the sailors.

Tobias Kehrer (Daland) © Thomas Jauk
Tobias Kehrer (Daland)
© Thomas Jauk

Stage designer Rufus Didwiszus is responsible for the dripping sounds into the pool upstage – a detail that could easily have been left out. His otherwise effective dirty sail-cloth constructions cleverly transform the sailboat into an interior space. Emma Ryott created black period costumes for everyone except Erik, who wears his dark green hunter’s coat. The anachronism here is that he is the only one fighting for life, whereby he is a hunter by profession.

Throughout the entire opera, played as usual without an intermission, there was nary a cough from the audience, a sign that they were fully immersed in Wagner’s melodrama.