Striking a nice balance between traditional ‘curtain down’ and modern ‘curtain up’ performances of overtures, Tim Albery’s production of the The Flying Dutchman opened with an abstract ballet of movement and light on grey sheet during the orchestral introduction. Ripples passed across it, more or less agitated in keeping with the character of the music, and gradually a sweeping beam (as if from a lighthouse) became more prominent, forecasting the redemption to come. Both the greyness and the use of light were prominent in a sparse production which failed to convince completely, despite strong performances from the principals and good support from the rest of the cast.

Bryn Terfel (Dutchman) © Clive Barda | ROH
Bryn Terfel (Dutchman)
© Clive Barda | ROH

The curtain rose on a minimalist set: initially, it represented a ship-deck, with a sharp upwards curve on stage left for the prow, but the level of abstraction was such that it could later serve as different locations on the Norwegian shore without straining credibility. For the Act II spinning scene, a factory-like row of machines was lowered into place, while the lovers’ scene afterwards required just two chairs in the foreground. A panel opened up in Act III, revealing a down-at-heel alcove bar where the choral duel between the crews took place, with a small strip of water downstage in which the Steersman splashed around. The final scene took place near a gangway, which was raised as the despairing Dutchman left (Senta briefly dangled from this before dropping back to earth).

Given the minimalist props, David Finn’s lighting played an important role in creating the atmosphere. It was dimly lit for the most part, with some nice touches such as the sinister shadow suggesting the arrival of the Dutchman’s ship at the end of scene 1. The greenish fluorescence when the Flying Dutchman’s crew were singing in Act III lent them the necessary touch of supernatural weirdness. Constance Hoffman’s costumes were mostly unmemorable, giving a near-contemporary feel to the whole without any obvious payoff.

Act III © Clive Barda | ROH
Act III
© Clive Barda | ROH

Some carelessness with regard to details in the production was irritating. For instance, Senta is supposed to sing her ballad while gazing on the Dutchman’s portrait, replaced here by a model of his ship. While this was not a major problem in itself, it made her start of recognition on seeing the legendary figure in the flesh somewhat odd (then again, she actually had her back to him when she ‘saw’ his dramatic silhouette upstage, so verisimilitude was a low priority). Moreover, the model ship in no way conformed to the explicit description of its ‘blood-red sails and black mast’ given in the ballad. The staging of the ending was also rather unconvincing. Wagner’s problematic instructions require the heroine to leap Tosca-like to her death, upon which the Dutchman’s ship sinks into the sea and the ‘transfigured forms’ of the two lovers are seen to ascend in glory. Here, Senta simply staggered and collapsed with the model of the ship in her arms, a downbeat close rather at odds with the soaring music.

Adrianne Pieczonka (Senta) © Clive Barda | ROH
Adrianne Pieczonka (Senta)
© Clive Barda | ROH
Bryn Terfel took on the title role when this production was first given in 2009, and he showed his trademark mixture of power and sensitivity in the first two acts of this revival (the big narration in Act I was particularly fine). However, a little tiredness seemed to have crept in by Act III, leaving his tone sounding less velvety than usual. Adrianne Pieczonka was a free-voiced Senta, with the warmth and strength of tone necessary to soar over the orchestra. Her ballad, the core number of the opera, was convincingly characterised, although verse 3 was pulled back in tempo too much for my taste, nearly grinding to a standstill before snapping back for the ‘Hui’ keening.

In the smaller roles, Peter Rose was a bluff Daland, making us smirk at his cupidity as he barters his daughter for the Dutchman’s treasure. As Erik, Michael König sounded rather pinched to start with (the contrast with Pieczonka in their scenes together did him no favours), but improved considerably over the course of the performance, and delivered a convincing cavatina in the last act. Catherine Wyn-Rogers was a secure Mary, and Ed Lyon did well as the Steersman.

A few places of imperfect coordination between orchestra and chorus left one with the feeling that Nelsons was pushing a slightly intractable group of singers. The female singers in particular sounded a little wobbly in tone in the Spinning number. The orchestra was solid, although not faultless. Nelsons cut an active figure on the podium, and struck a nice balance between preserving momentum and giving space for dramatic details.