The first of his works that was undeniably Wagner

From this Sunday, the Royal Danish Theatre, in a co-production with the English National Opera, will be staging Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. Wagner is perhaps the most celebrated of all operatic composers, and this run offers a fine chance to experience one of his earlier works in a production that boasts some pedigree. It marks Michael Boder’s first opera as principal conductor and artistic advisor at the theatre since his move from the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. During his time in Spain, he was met with considerable acclaim, acquiring a Grammy nomination for Lulu and the 2012 Spanish critics’ award for Le Grand Macabre. English actor and director Jonathan Kent has been enlisted for the stage direction, and attendees are promised a “colourful universe filled with pirate ships and adventures, in which fantasy and reality meld together as one”.

The Flying Dutchman is particularly noted as being the first opera in which Wagner started to develop into the legendary composer he is known as today. The story of his inspiration for the piece is so dramatic it almost rivals that contained within the opera itself. In July 1839, Wagner was sacked as musical director at the city theatre in Riga, and then, heavily in debt, he was forced to flee rather than face prison. This plan was complicated somewhat by the fact that his passport had been confiscated by the authorities, so he was forced to hunt around for a boat that would agree to take him despite his lack of official documentation. Eventually succeeding, his boat was then forced to shelter from approaching storms in a Norwegian fishing village, and it was the port’s atmospheric nature, coupled with the drama of his high seas voyage, that proved to be inspirational to Wagner.

In fact it is believed Wagner recognised that the intriguing back-story would provide good publicity for the opera and that’s why he changed his original decision to set it in Scotland back to Norway (175 years later we are still writing about it, so it would appear to be a sage decision).

First performed when Wagner was 29, there is a rawness that in his later works would be replaced by a more refined, measured approach. But this only serves to make the opera more intriguing. Aficionados will recognise in the work styles that he later perfected and came to define him, so for those familiar with his subsequent works it is fascinating to hear and appreciate the evolution of his talent. At the same time, for newcomers to opera, The Flying Dutchman’s punchy, interval-less 130 minutes offer a fairly accessible first step into the sometimes-bewildering world of opera.

‘The Flying Dutchman’ is of course a mythical ship, doomed to sail forever without landing at port. In the opera, this ship is personified by the character of The Flying Dutchman himself, who is allowed on land only once every seven years, where his curse will be lifted if he finds a wife.  Here he crosses paths with Senta, a young woman who, growing up, hears the story of the Dutchman. She develops a fascination with him that becomes an obsession, which eventually fuels their doomed love affair.

It’s worth noting that the performance is in German with Danish supertitles, though of course the music and the stagecraft work transcend language. Throughout, the score ebbs and flows from major to minor keys but never quite settles on one definitively, creating a foreboding atmosphere evocative of the brooding menace of the open sea. The opera is heavy on big choral moments, allowing the cast plenty of room for grand and spectacular demonstrations of their talents. With highly-rated Danish baritone Johan Reuter taking the title role as the Dutchman, and specialist Wagner soprano Ann Petersen playing Senta, it seems a safe bet that such demonstrations will be impressive.

The Flying Dutchman
Operaen, Ekvipagemestervej 10, Cph K; starts Sun, ends Feb 28, performances at 20:00 (unless stated) on Sun (15:00), Tue, Thu, Feb 2 (15:00), Feb 4, Feb 8, Feb 18, Feb 21, Feb 25, Feb 28; tickets: 125-895kr,; duration: 130 mins; in German with Danish supertitles.

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