For Albery, Senta is no breathless Romantic, but a captive soul seeking escape (a point underlined by the menacing cage-like structure of sewing-machines in which the women are trapped). Her longing for the pale-faced stranger, who arrives in the shape of a weary, despairing Terfel, seems to stem from a death-wish. Pieczonka’s approach has a slow burn, and she creates a breath-taking stillness at the heart of her beautifully shaped ballad, and in her tense encounter with the Dutchman, set here with just two chairs under a light bulb (rarely have the drums of a heart ‘left beating by Satan’ made such a spine-tingling impact). While Terfel is occasionally hoarse and uneven, and drowned out by her impressive legato, one wishes she had some of his dramatic range and subtlety of timbre. There’s little sense of her being transformed by desperation: the burly, sweet-voiced, Erik (Michael König) goes unnoticed, and the last scene, in which Albery has her slump down cradling the ghost ship instead of throwing herself into the waves, is an anti-climax. Has it all occurred in her, now broken, mind?
Perhaps Jonathan Kent’s swashbuckling, gothic production at ENO (in 2012) is still too vivid in my memory, but I missed his extravagant sailors’ bacchanale and the genuine frisson between his handsome Dutchman, James Cresswell, and Orla Boylan’s Senta. Here, the homecoming party is a more self-conscious, sober affair, with drunken Steersman Ed Lyons injecting the only note of sexiness. Similarly, Peter Rose provides the only light relief in his comfortably vulgar Daland, managing with a blithe ‘am I in the way?’ to reduce their tortured deliberations to a spot of nooky.
But this production’s secret weapon is surely Andris Nelsons, who delivers a performance of brooding spaciousness and piercing detail. A storm-blown curtain may have rippled rather feebly, but his overture sprang into ferocious life. Not that the Royal Opera’s forces always lived up to his demands: while the second theme had a limpid clarity, winds edged sharp, the women’s chorus, despite a honeyed pianissimo, too often lagged behind his exacting beat. The male chorus, however, was hugely powerful, both at the start on the curved deck, or crammed into what could be a ship’s hold in Act 2, where the intensifying exchanges between the living and dead sailors have never been more tautly thrilling.
Continues at the Royal Opera House until 24 February