Fully immersive, concept-driven opera is still a fairly rare experience in London, although our theatre scene has warmly embraced the trend (pioneered by Punchdrunk and others). So, when we are welcomed brusquely into the “Refugee Processing Centre” by stern volunteers in yellow jackets, and gruffly passed a form to fill in stating our name, country of origin and “reason for persecution” (albeit while being offered a blanket), it takes time to realise that St John's Church hasn't been accidentally double-booked by the Red Cross as well as Fulham Opera. In fact, our encounter with the Flying Dutchman, cursed to travel the earth without rest or respite until the Day of Judgement unless he can win the love of a pure-hearted girl ready to sacrifice herself and redeem his soul, has already begun.  

© Matthew Coughlan
© Matthew Coughlan

As Jonathan Finney notes in his quietly fascinating programme introduction, Wagner declared in his 1851 pamphlet Communication to my Friends that “the Flying Dutchman... gives emotionally compelling expression to... the longing for peace from the storms of life.” And Daisy Evans takes this sense of exhausted, eternal displacement as her directoral cue: not only we the audience, but all the sailors, are homeless vagrants, while even those with homes (such as Senta) are profoundly alienated and unsettled. Seafaring references still abound: the church interior has been sensitively transformed by Chris Beer into the deck of a ghostly ship, and we sit together under tattered sails and slackened rigging in a semicircle of chairs and mats, the singers stumbling through us in all directions to reach the central playing space, with a small, lustrous orchestra (Ben Woodward conducting Finney’s intelligent arrangement of the score, which subtly smuggles a few extra treats from other works for Wagner enthusiasts) to one side. But it is our sudden, imposed rootlessness which puts us all at sea with the Dutchman, lost in life’s disorientating whirlwind. 

© Matthew Coughlan
© Matthew Coughlan

This production has been many months in the planning, but feels eerily timely. To be asked, in a peremptory fashion, to define yourself and the tragedy of your life inside the impersonal boxes of a paper form which no one may ever read, before being doled out a blanket and swiftly moved along, is an experience which many are truly living today. It fits the Dutchman, a man ironically defined both by his nationality and his inability to return to his homeland, perfectly. In lieu of his ship, Keel Watson carries a huge kitbag, his burden and his prize, offering Daland a carrier bag of crumpled dollar bills, the international currency of black market greed, for his daughter. Meanwhile, Daland’s Steersman (an exceptional Tom Lowe) is a drug dealer, enjoying a few lines of MDMA during his exquisite “Mit Gewitter Und Sturm”, then opening a brown-paper brick of coke and a bag of pills for the party scene, with which he menaces his frightened fellows rather than sharing the goods. We know Senta and an exceptionally prim, grim Mary (a smooth-voiced Mae Heydorn) run the shelter, as they wear fluorescent tabards, but their authority doesn’t prevent them from chemical indulgence: in a memorable tableau, Senta overdoses on pills as the Dutchman watches her, distraught, while the crew of the Flying Dutchman, voiced by comatose partygoers, sing their ghostly “Johohoe! Johohohoe!”. From then on, we know Senta’s death is only a question of time: rather than throwing herself into the sea, she finally collapses on a floor strewn with pills, beer cans and the somnolent bodies of the despairing dispossessed.

Keel Watson (The Dutchman) © Matthew Coughlan
Keel Watson (The Dutchman)
© Matthew Coughlan

If that all sounds rather gritty to you... it is. There’s no denying Evans’ dystopian vision of Der fliegende Holländer is a tough watch, and sometimes the sheer level of aggression on stage threatens to lose the sense of the work. Evans’ idea of a furious, scowling Senta who does nothing but glare at her father Daland, her lover Erik, and even the Dutchman himself (no romantic spiritual connections here, just two broken people desperate to be needed) is particularly hard to reconcile with Senta’s ravishing music, sung with precision, power and elegance by Janet Fischer. Senta’s traditional youthful idealism is excised; Evans replaces it with delusional desperation to escape from a violent father (an otherwise jovial Daland, sung with fine tone by an excellent John Milne) and her lover Erik, voiced superbly and played with noticeable sincerity and tenderness by Edward Hughes. Even Senta’s famous ballad of the Flying Dutchman, a miniature of the opera set within it like a jewel in a ring, is delivered more as malediction than fantasy. However, the singing is so fabulously good, it’s worth sticking with the production: and Keel Watson’s magnificent, powerful, bronze-toned Dutchman keeps on delivering a glorious cocktail of pathos, distrust, and vulnerability right to the end. 

****1