Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman is a tale not only about redemption through love, but also about the helpless plight of human beings in the face of wilful and vindictive supernatural forces. In the hands of Wagner, the mythical Dutchman, instead of being a collector of itinerant souls at sea, has become an intrepid adventurer condemned to eternal maritime wandering. His only reprieve is a septennial holiday on land to find true love in a woman to break the satanic curse.

The Flying Dutchman © Matthias Jung
The Flying Dutchman
© Matthias Jung

The three protagonists – the Dutchman, Senta and her erstwhile lover Erik – are linked by a fate of displacement and alienation, and embody the idea of “Sehnsucht” (yearning or longing). The lonely Dutchman clearly seeks terrestrial peace; Senta’s infatuation with a legendary seafarer she has never met sets her apart from her companions; and the jilted Erik, a hunter among a community of sailors, probably finds it hard to blend in.

Much has been written about the work’s significance in operatic development in general, and its place in Wagner’s style of music drama in particular. Yet for audiences, its real importance is as a succinct preview of Wagner’s vast and progressively more demanding output. Lasting under two-and-a-half hours, it does not require superhuman endurance to enjoy, and if you suspend disbelief about the plausibility of the plot, The Flying Dutchman is powerful drama with some compelling music.

Opera Hong Kong’s production, in collaboration with Deutsche Oper am Rhein Düsseldorf-Duisburg, was packed with punch and oomph. For starters, director Volker Böhm’s overall presentation was impressive. Wolf Münzner designed an elaborate set, with two decent-sized boats wobbling against a sloping platform front of stage and ten-foot tall spinning wheels in Act II to boot. The lighting was thoughtful – radiant lustre for Daland’s sails and crew, and an eerie red for the Dutchman’s. Confined mostly to black, white and shades of grey, the costume put the finishing touches to an authentic period drama.

Kurt Rydl put on a forceful portrayal of the money-hungry Daland, ready to sacrifice his daughter’s happiness for a smattering of gold and jewellery at the drop of a hat. Helped by a powerful bass voice with carefully nurtured rhythmic vigour, his strategic moments of silence injected subtle comic relief the audience quite willingly lapped up in this dark tale of misadventure.

As the Dutchman, Jukka Rasilainen was well grounded, both musically and physically, but a little wooden, perhaps weather beaten by years of roaming the high seas, and true to Wagner’s own words: “longing for peace in the wake of life’s storms”.

Tomislav Mužek brought abundant lyricism to the role of Erik the jilted hunter, an underdog and loser deserving pity. Yet by being truthful and occupying the moral highground, he ended up winning more sympathy than pity.

Wagner is said to have written Senta’s ballad before he completed music for the rest of the opera and thus considered it to be the “kernel” around which the rest of the work expanded. As a “woman of the future”, aspiring to a fate of selfless sacrifice for an imaginary victim of his own determination, Senta is the lynchpin of the opera. Soprano Manuela Uhl was cogent enough in the role, but her acting was more compelling than her singing, and at points she was at risk of being overshadowed by Erik’s superb lyricism.

The gentility of the ladies in the Opera Hong Kong Chorus was soothing, but the men’s tone could have been stronger in portraying the rough-and-tumble of a sailor’s lot. Ning Liang as Mary hardly projected and was drowned by the chorus half the time.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra turned out in full force to provide support. Under conductor Henrik Schaefer, it got most of the nuances right in Wagner’s sinewy score – the buzzing tremolo on strings, the blazing horns, the sweeping gestures of hard driving brass and the whispering annotations of the woodwinds, with the only blemish being that the cor anglais on Senta’s theme was diffident and tentative.

Although it was the first attempt by a local opera company to put on Wagner, Opera Hong Kong’s The Flying Dutchman proved it was well worth the wait, and a riveting tribute to the composer during the year of his bicentenary and the 130th anniversary of its première. It took The Flying Dutchman 25 years to get on the roster in Bayreuth; I hope it won’t take as long for Opera Hong Kong to offer another Wagner production.