Once again this season, the Hungarian State Opera will be visiting Müpa Budapest with three concert version operas, bringing performances of Die fliegende Holländer, Die Königin von Saba and Simon Boccanegra to the palatial performing arts centre alongside the Danube in January.
The young Wagner was inspired by the elementary power of nature in 1839, when a planned eight-day sea voyage ended up taking three weeks owing to a gale. The experience reminded him of one of Heine's stories: “That wooden ghost, that spook-ship, is so called from the captain, a Dutchman, who once swore by all the devils that he would get round a certain mountain – its name has escaped me – in spite of a fearful storm, even if he would have to sail until Judgement Day. The devil took him at his word, therefore he must sail forever, until set free by a woman's loyalty.”
The accursed Dutchman who can only step ashore every seven years is the first among Wagner's heroes to yearn for the miracle of being redeemed by love. This legend of a woman's extreme self-sacrifice and a man bearing the immense burden of his fate was reborn as one of the most popular of Romantic operas. Wagner composed it as a one-act work in 1841, but expanded it to three-acts even before the 1843 Dresden world premiere. It is the latter version that the artists of the Hungarian State Opera will be performing.
A ship is overtaken by a storm. The captain – Donald (Daland) – takes shelter in the somewhat calmer waters of a bay in order to await a more favourable wind. They are forced to cast anchor, even though only a few miles separate them from their homes and their womenfolk. Donald's daughter, Senta, is awaiting his return home. The sailors go to have a rest, with only one remaining on watch. As the solitary seaman nods off, he sings of his loyal bride and the southerly wind that will take him home. Suddenly, a mysterious sailing vessel pulls up beside them: the ship belongs to the Flying Dutchman. “My time is up, after seven long years, the sufferer may return to shore again.” He is hoping for the redemption of death, and his crew echo his lament: “Come, eternal nothingness.”
Donald is the first to notice the newly arrived ship flying the Dutch flag, and he scolds his subordinate for failing to remain alert. The two captains converse cordially. A mutually beneficial business deal is outlined: the Dutch captain will pay handsomely if someone will host him for the night, and he will hand over his entire fortune if he finds a home not just for one night, but forever. Without hesitating, Donald offers the Dutchman his daughter's hand in marriage. The agreement is concluded.
The storm calms and a gentle south wind springs up to take the drifting sailors home. The Dutchman's phantom ship follows Donald and his crew.
The women and girls are hard at work, for life must go on even while their husbands and sweethearts are out on the wild seas. Only Senta's hands move slowly, as she daydreams about the portrait of a mysterious man. Ever since Mary related the fate afflicting the stranger in the picture, Senta has been unable to think about anything but the sad legend. She wants to hear the gloomy tale over and over again, as the figure of the grim mariner stirs her imagination ever more vividly. The girls urge her to tell the story of the accursed Dutchman herself now.
With extraordinary power, Senta recounts the story of the Dutchman. Growing ever more emotional, she finally declares that she wishes to redeem the accursed captain with her love and loyalty. She is practically beside herself when Georg (Erik), the huntsman, enters. He has brought news: Donald's ship has reached the shore safely.
When Georg and Senta are left alone, the young hunter nervously asks Senta what Donald will say if he asks for his daughter's hand in marriage, for Donald values wealth, and Georg is poor. And will Senta take his side? Senta gives evasive answers.
Georg relates how distressed he is over a dream he's had. In it, Donald arrives home with a strange seafarer, whom Senta welcomes warmly. Senta is unable to disguise the fact that she is daydreaming about the same thing. His spirit broken, Georg rushes out.
When Donald and the Dutchman enter, everything happens exactly as Georg feared and Senta hoped. Donald is satisfied: the Dutchman and Senta will tie their fates together. They decide to hold the wedding at the celebration of the crew's successful return home. “This girl's fidelity breaks the power of hell!” the Dutchman cries out triumphantly.
The sailors and the women celebrate merrily, but the ghostly singing of the Dutchman's crew puts an end to the fun. The despairing Georg grills Senta: how can she swear fidelity to a man whom she doesn't even know? He reminds her that they had once planned to share their future together. The Dutchman overhears their parting words. Seeing Senta's distress, he believes that the girl has violated her promise of fidelity. Without a moment's hesitation, he gives the order to set sail. This decision is also meant to protect Senta: if she were to break her vow of fidelity after the wedding, she too would be cursed.
The desperate girl attempts to hold him back, and Georg is horrified to see the passionate flame of love in his beloved Senta's eyes. But nothing can restrain the Dutchman: his ship races out of the bay. After crying out her vow of eternal fidelity to heaven from a cliff towering over the sea, Senta casts herself into the water. The ocean opens up under the Dutchman's ship; the endless wandering is over, and the Dutchman and his crew have found redemption and the death they have long yearned for.