“The wind that blows out at you whenever you open the score” was how the 19th century composer and conductor Franz Lachner chose to describe the effects of The Flying Dutchman, Wagner’s fourth opera and a critical transitional one in his oeuvre, first performed in 1843. Tonight’s Washington National Opera performance of Wagner’s “saga in one breath” was pleasing.

Eric Owens (Dutchman) © Scott Suchman for WNO
Eric Owens (Dutchman)
© Scott Suchman for WNO

The bass-baritone and two-time Grammy Award winner Eric Owens was making his stage-role debut as the Dutchman, a role he played with moving authenticity and emotional depth. From his initial posture, hung cruciform against blood-red rigging, rope-bound, capped by the sign ‘Verdammt’, a Christ on the cross of the unredeemed, his body was as weighty to him, as his voice was to his audience. His opening recitative and aria, well conveyed the sense of Weltschmerz (world-pain) through an emotional range that took us through restrained sostenuto to passionate anguish. He could – and indeed did – lie down on the stage in agony and still deliver. Vesting himself in a hulking fur great-coat and top hat for his first contact with the living world in seven years, his ponderous voice and brooding presence loomed over the whole production, just as the sight of his massive form, evoking the celebrated Caspar David Friedrich painting, had loomed over the imagination of feminine society for years.

Jay Hunter Morris (Erik) and Christiane Libor (Senta) © Scott Suchman for WNO
Jay Hunter Morris (Erik) and Christiane Libor (Senta)
© Scott Suchman for WNO
German soprano Christiane Libor played Senta, Wagner’s “robust Northern maid”, her voice creamily full in the higher registers. I was not absolutely convinced by her acting; alongside Owens, it was 'agony and redemption-lite'. Then again, it is difficult to be romanced by a Flying Dutchman, so self-absorbed that although he speaks of redemption by a woman, hardly sees her on her own terms, but as a means to end his eternal agony. In any case, it lacked chemistry: they stared at each other across a void. By contrast, the dynamic between herself and Erik rung much truer: their duets had a dramatic vocal and theatrical intensity which was most convincing. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris was making his WNO debut as Erik, the one sensible man in the plot, and despite a very occasional thinness of sound, sang and acted with passion.

Estonian bass Ain Anger was also making his WNO debut. As Daland, he is given some conventionally Italianate-sounding music, and this he tossed off with carefree ease, always more interested in glancing at his new possessions (the Dutchman’s treasures) than at his daughter whom he claims he loves but who is effectively sold. Anger played up the comic note to the amusement of the audience.

The choruses, male (the sailors) and female (spinners), are so much ballast on the convulsed ship that is Dutchman, providing the light relief and ebullience that we need, and also the communal fear and terror that normal people might feel in the face of the praeternaturally inexplicable. It does not matter much that their stage actions were artificial and contrived; we don’t necessarily need anything but contrived, as there is so much real angst in the Dutchman himself, anything else might take away from what is an intense interpersonal psychological drama. So the choruses fulfilled their role, and are, for their humble pains, eliminated from the transcendent redemption of the final moments. In an elite Wagnerian world, redemption is not for such as these.

The orchestra, under the baton of French conductor Philippe Auguin, came into its own after the Overture. The storm in the Overture itself, one could not help feeling, was rather too sedate, still stormy, but not terrifyingly so and we need from the start that lurching sea-sick feeling of impending doom to fully appreciate the uncontrollable forces of destiny. The gentler redemptive motif was, by contrast, lyrically conveyed, but this only takes on its full meaning in dramatic contrast.

Jay Hunter Morris (Erik) and Christiane Libor (Senta) © Scott Suchman for WNO
Jay Hunter Morris (Erik) and Christiane Libor (Senta)
© Scott Suchman for WNO

Director Stephen Lawless took inspiration for his production from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The link was the sense of alienation of both artists, and also their invocation of sea-faring myths. This was an appropriate intertextual choice although one would have liked to have read more about it in the program than the mere announcement of intent, and those unfamiliar with Coleridge would have been totally at sea. I’m not sure whether the British director should have taken this knowledge for granted with an American audience, or was transnational irony the point? As it was, beyond the very obvious albatross, I was left to scurry home and revisit my copy of Coleridge to see just what other elements were invoked in the production. More transparency here would have been an asset.

Tonight’s performance was, in its way, intended as a ‘teaser’ for 2016’s debut WNO production of The Ring Cycle. If tonight is anything to go by, we have much to look forward to.