In Harry Fehr’s much-anticipated new production of The Flying Dutchman for Scottish Opera, the setting is in Scotland – as Wagner had originally intended before a last-minute switch to Norway during rehearsals for the first production in 1843. Fehr also brings the setting to the north-east of Scotland in the 1970s, a time when Scotland was getting to grips with North Sea oil, and indeed, a silhouette of an oil rig emerging out of a bluish fog is depicted on the front stage gauze. Fehr also changes names, so that Daland becomes Donald, and huntsman Eric becomes George, who – although he appears with gun and a pair of dead rabbits – is billed as a minister.

Scottish Opera’s The Flying Dutchman with Peteris Eglitis as The Dutchman and Rachel Nicholls © James Glossop 2013
Scottish Opera’s The Flying Dutchman with Peteris Eglitis as The Dutchman and Rachel Nicholls
© James Glossop 2013

Conductor Francesco Corti wisely placed all his brass players hard up against the back wall of the pit, and thus well under the stage at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal. He also swapped the cellos with the violas, allowing greater projection of the bottom strings into the auditorium. This arrangement paid dividends as the mostly big voices carried well across Wagner’s lush score. The overture was stirringly played by the orchestra with the front gauze remaining in place, but with added white swirly mist from video designer Ian William Galloway.

The initial storm scene, set on a grey quayside, saw Donald’s small boat driven into the shelter of the port by the weather. We saw the top half of the vessel pitching and tossing realistically, its radar revolving wildly as an impossibly large crew in assorted denim, boiler suits, big muckle boots and woolly hats scrambled along the harbour wall to tie her up. They all took shelter in the café built under the quay, where we could see them catching up with news in the Press and Journal and downing mugs of strong tea. The Steersman, radiantly sung by Nicky Spence, was left on watch.

As the Steersman dozed, the Dutchman’s ship appeared as a massive ghostly shimmering silhouette, taking up the whole backcloth. As the red mist swirled round the image, intriguingly we were never quite sure if we could see figures scurrying about on the bridge. The spooky entrance of the Dutchman, arriving on land after seven years of wandering the oceans, emerging black-hooded in his sea clothes up the ladder from the far side of the quay, was highly effective. When Donald discovered him, skulking behind an industrial wheelie-bin, he invited him home, and with the storm abated, they all piled into the wee boat.

Act II was set in a 1970s village hall, with the local ladies in dresses and period knitwear grouped round tables, sewing and making sandwiches and food for the return of their menfolk. A picture on the wall symbolises the tale of the Flying Dutchman, the obsessive focus of Senta, Donald’s daughter – but this is where the production fell short. Senta was depicted as a misfit daftie, yet in a close-knit coastal community strangely ignored by the other ladies, who openly snigger behind her back at her fixation with the Dutchman. There was some good, solid singing from Sarah Pring as Mary, here the hall-keeper and Senta’s lone female advocate, and from Jeff Gwaltney as Senta’s suitor George. Set designer Tom Scutt had a lot of fun with period detail including the stacking green tubular and wooden chairs, welcome home bunting and scuffed swing doors.

Finally, we were back at the ship, and the chorus in high spirits danced a conga and called out to the crew to accept their offer of food and refreshment, only to be met with silence, then spectral voices which were soundscaped round the auditorium. As George pleaded with Senta not to go off with the stranger, the Dutchman arrived and mistakenly interpreted this as a betrayal. It was not a happy ending, but it was also not Wagner’s ending.

American Scott Wilde was excellent as Donald, with a strong authoritative voice, clad in a huge sheepskin coat. There were problems with Peteris Eglitis’ vocally light Dutchman, particularly in the second act, where he seemed to be nursing his voice rather than singing out, and therefore a mismatch with Rachel Nicholls’ quite outstanding vocal performance as Senta.

Scottish Opera now recruits a chorus as and when required, and it is good to see familiar names appearing in the list of singers. Chorusmaster James Grossmith must have been putting then through their paces, because their performance throughout the evening was never short of thrilling. It is a long time since we heard such an electrifying wall of sound: it had us completely pinned to our seats.

Musically, this is a very fine show, though Wagner traditionalists will be disappointed with the production, which strays too far from the original. Dutchman is an opera seldom seen in Scotland, and this made a successful final production for Scottish Opera’s outgoing musical director Francesco Corti.

****1