Even the opera’s swelling 10-minute overture evokes dramas of lost souls, the depths of passion, and the power of Nature to change them all. While the Philharmonia Zürich took on a demanding orchestral assignment for The Flying Dutchman under Axel Kober’s baton, the woodwinds and horns excelled, more so here because as Richard Wagner originally intended, the Zurich production played through all three acts of the opera without any interval.

Failing to mention that he was escaping his creditors, Wagner claimed he wrote this opera following a stormy sea voyage he and his wife Minna made between Riga and London in the summer of 1839. He later contended that The Flying Dutchman – first staged in Dresden in 1943 – marked a new side of him: "From here,” he wrote, “begins my career as poet, and my farewell to the mere concoctor of opera-texts."

<i>The Flying Dutchman</i> © Toni Suter & Tanja Dorendorf
The Flying Dutchman
© Toni Suter & Tanja Dorendorf

The story is of a man (the Dutchman) who must wander the seas aboard ship, coming ashore only once every seven years to search for a wife. Only the faithful devotion of that one selfless woman – the “eternal fidelity” that is a “woman’s noblest virtue” – will lift the curse imposed upon him. While tough luck by any standard, such content makes for meaty opera. But in Andreas Homoki's production, most of the stage was rendered unusable by a colossal, dark-panelled wooden tower set right in the middle of the action. It hid the rotating stage beneath it, but grossly restricted any of the singers’ action to a slim semicircle. Setting a chorus of some 60 singers on that, along with the principals and occasional props, was a sure-fire recipe for overcrowding and confusion.

Costumed in black-and-white, the “sailors” were transformed into marine engineers and their female cohorts as if at the Royal Society, ca. 1900. That was an age of the plunder of Africa, which was alluded to first by a map at the rear of the operations centre, then again by a North African servant who sported a fez. In Act III, the same extra made a cameo appearance as a tribal warrior on the warpath, an entrance as incongrous as it was enigmatic.

Meagan Miller gave a mixed performance as the misguided Senta. While her powerful upper range easily reached every part of the house, it was often so full of vibrato that it threatened to lose its actual line, and showed little nuance in volume and timbre. Later, in a high-intensity moment with the Dutchman, she fell seriously short on a few of her higher notes. That said, the duet revealing her first, coy affection for the “gloomy” Dutch stranger was done with gifted expression and conviction.

<i>The Flying Dutchman</i> © Toni Suter & Tanja Dorendorf
The Flying Dutchman
© Toni Suter & Tanja Dorendorf

Senta’s loving father, Daland (Ain Anger), who praises her as “an ornament to her sex”, was cast superbly, and his warm, bronzy voice had us all riveted to his cause from the start. The same could be said for the lead, Michael Volle, who rounded out his vowels and tempered every line with fitting resonance, sometimes blatantly vicious, sometimes tender as a babe in arms. His portrayal of the Dutchman’s sovereign agony had the depth and heft that mark the best of Wagner, and great lines around the “murky tumult” of his grim situation were highly compelling. This was the poetry in the production, hands down. Sadly, however, illogical staging and costuming undercut even his brilliant character. His face was marked by mock-Maori tattoos, his huge bushy coat could have come from a thrift shop, and his silly crushed top hat drew associations that begged overlooking.

While Senta’s suitor and lovesick Erik (Marco Jentzsch) sang somewhat unevenly, he clearly had some of the libretto’s best lines: “What seduced you so rapidly is willing to break this truest heart,” he sings to the wayfaring Senta. How true for any jilted lover. Regardless, props got in the way here, too. We knew Erik was a hunter, for example, after his rifle’s first appearance,; one hardly needed to see him lug it around constantly before Senta used the weapon against herself.    

Oddly, even in critical dramatic moments, the figures stepped across one another in unnatural and over studied configurations. As early as in Act I, Senta had stripped down to the silk slip that was her only costume for the greater part of the opera. Granted, wearing your underwear in public may point to psychological imbalance, but the character’s almost incessant running around the stage was visually disconcerting. In sum, while the music was arguably sublime, Zurich’s Flying Dutchman repeatedly insisted on stage movement where none was required, and contrivance took precedence over poetry.