Review: The Flying Dutchman – Canadian Opera Company

By Darryl D’Souza

Canadian Opera Company presents a visually impressive production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman

The Canadian Opera Company’s (COC’s) production of Richard Wagner’s famous opera The Flying Dutchman, now playing at The Four Seasons Centre For The Performing Arts, is very beautiful and certainly well worth seeing.

While most operas have simple and often contrived plots, The Flying Dutchman, much like Wagner’s other masterpiece, Tristan and Isolde, has a seemingly simple plot centred around a love story that is, in actuality, incredibly complicated and convoluted.  Richard Wagner, who wrote the libretto himself, and was incidentally, I believe, the first operatic composer to do this, based The Flying Dutchman on a famous folkloric myth. 

A sailor, the Dutchman refered to in the title of the piece, is condemned by the devil to perpetually sail the seas for all eternity.   He is permitted to land ashore only once every seven years to search for a woman to love him.  The Dutchman makes a Faustian-like pact with Daland, a sea captain, to trade his daughter Senta’s hand in marriage for a large coffer of treasure.

I find the story a compelling one. It mixes the pursuit of an ideal and perhaps non-existent love with the reality of a meaningless life of loneliness at sea.

The plight of the Dutchman seems to me to be a contemporary existential dilemma.  In this sense, the story transcends its setting and achieves a timelessness that I think Wagner would be proud of.  How many myths, Greek, Christian or otherwise can be said to really reflect the problems afflicting (at least a small minority of) people today?

In the first act of the opera, we see a huge crew of thirty or forty sailors on a ship.  This is  a stark juxtaposition to the solitary Dutchman alone aboard the same ship.  It showed us that even aboard a crowded ship, the Dutchman is still ultimately completely alone; his life is devoid of that which would bring his life meaning: the love of another human being.

As I wrote above, Wagner’s writing is not a conventional libretto.  The notes from my press kit indicate that Wagner was striving to express himself in poetry, rather than the conventional prose of most opera “texts”.  The result is a storyline that is somewhat difficult to follow, with perhaps some brief moments of profundity.  If you’re expecting the so-called “poetry” of The Flying Dutchman’s libretto to be anything like other famous, almost contemporary German poets like Goethe or Rilke, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

I found the COC’s interpretation/production of The Flying Dutchman quite good in many respects.  The lighting is by and large quite deft and artful; I liked certain uses of total monochromatic red light and the brief contrasting shadows and light presented in one scene.  At times, though, I felt the lighting was somewhat gaudy, such as in the third act, when it seemed glow-in-the-dark scarves were used.  These were, at the very least, incongruous, if not anachronistic.

The set, a huge, unevenly keeled ship, which remains through all 3 acts and serves as a few locations other than a ship, was quite impressive.  It looked very much like a real ship, yet lighting effects made it have the requisite ethereal feeling at various points.  I can’t imagine a better set, although I think it cost a lot more than most low-budget theatre or opera companies can afford.

To be honest, I don’t think I know enough about opera to judge how well the orchestra played or the singers sang, but I enjoyed both, especially the orchestra.  The singers’ acting wasn’t at all stilted, which is sometimes a problem with opera performers.  However, at the same time, the acting didn’t especially impress me.  In general, I would say the overall theatricality of the opera impressed me the most.

Why not give opera a chance and check out Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman?  You might just find yourself discovering something incredibly beautiful.


The Flying Dutchman is playing at The Four Seasons Centre For The Performing Arts until May 20, 2010.

-Performances are at 7:30 pm with some matinees on Saturday at 4:30 pm and Sunday at 2 pm.

-Ticket prices are $62 – $292.  Rush tickets start at $20 and are available at 11 am on the day of performance.  Opera for a New Age Patrons between 16-29 can purchase designated seats for only $20.

-Tickets are available online, by calling 416-363-8231 or in person at the Four Seasons Centre Box Office (145 Queen St. W.).

(Photo of: Evgeny Nikitin as The Dutchman and Julie Makerov as Senta, Photograph by: Michael Cooper)