This is a Dutchman with a difference: it refuses to engage with Wagner’s ideas. Before the first night of Scottish Opera’s new production, the director Harry Fehr admitted that he “liked the music” but didn’t want “to feel bogged down by Wagner’s rather unpleasant philosophy”. And so he ignores the allegorical dimension of the phantom ship, opting instead for a soap-operatic narrative about a ship’s captain in search of true love and a girl who is a misfit in a coastal community.
Fehr further dumbs down the opera by giving it a Scottish veneer – his justification being that Wagner originally set it in Scotland and only changed the location after experiencing a nightmarish sea-journey off the Norwegian coast. So in this cosmetic remake, Daland becomes Donald, Erik becomes George, but Senta remains Senta – not Anna, as Wagner originally called her.
The action is updated to the 1970s, with a quayside setting where fishing boats rub shoulders with oil tankers and frumpish women make tea and sandwiches for their seafaring men-folk. Peterhead? Aberdeen? We are supposed to make a connection with Scotland’s oil industry, but Tom Scutt’s village hall sets and Ian William Galloway’s vacuous videos could pass for Peter Grimes. The key to the scenario is its parochial-ness. At the final curtain Senta stabs herself, and Erik – sorry, George – shoots the Dutchman. Maybe Fehr should stick to verismo and leave Wagner to grown-up directors.
On his own terms, he manages the stage well enough, with plenty of peripheral detail to mask his anti-intellectual stance. The choruses are vividly enacted and the confrontational set-pieces come across with intensity. Peteris Eglitis’s Dutchman is compromised by an underpowered voice and a complete lack of mystique. Rachel Nicholls’ bright and lusty Senta irradiates the stage, complemented by Scott Wilde’s warm-voiced, warm-hearted Donald and Jeff Gwaltney’s appealingly lyrical George: both have commendable German diction.
Francesco Corti gives Wagner’s score more Italianate flair than most Italian operas he has conducted here. This is his last production as Scottish Opera’s music director. Has anyone been lined up to take his place? There seems to be an alarming lack of interest in this key post.