Storms and Salvation: Wagner's 'The Flying Dutchman'

The Flying Dutchman was a sea captain. Once, while struggling to save his ship during a ferocious storm, he swore that he would succeed even if he had to sail until judgment day. The Devil heard that oath, and condemned the Dutchman to stay at sea forever. The Devil did give him one way to save himself. He could end his predicament by finding a woman who loved him enough to declare fidelity to him for life. But he wouldn't have many chances to do it. He could only stop sailing once every seven years to go ashore and search for true love.

Following the stormy orchestral prelude, ACT ONE begins as a ship arrives in a sheltered cove, after a long struggle at sea. The captain is a Norwegian named Daland, who lives nearby with his daughter, Senta. As the crewman furl the sails, the opening chorus concludes, and we hear the famous song of the Steersman.

Another ship then appears -- a gloomy-looking vessel with black masts and blood red sails. Its captain is the legendary Flying Dutchman. His latest seven-year stint is up, and the ship is headed for harbor so the Dutchman can go ashore to search for love.

When the two captains meet, Daland tells the Dutchman about his daughter Senta. The Dutchman thinks that she just might be the woman he's been looking for. So he offers Daland his entire fortune in return for an introduction. The two men reach agreement and head for Daland's home, and the first act ends as the entire chorus repeats Steersman's heroic song.

In ACT TWO we meet Senta herself. She's in her father's house, spinning with some friends. To pass the time, she sings the well-known passage known as "Senta's Ballad," telling her companions the legend of the Dutchman. As she finishes the story, she's gazing at a painting of the Dutchman, saying she will be the one to save him. Senta already has a suitor, a hunter named Erik. But she's obsessed with the legendary Dutchman -- leaving Erik jealous of a supposed myth.

As Daland and his men appear, the other women leave to greet the sailors, and Daland arrives at home with the Dutchman. Senta immediately notices the stranger's resemblance to the picture on their wall. Daland makes his introductions, and leaves the two alone. When the Dutchman professes his love, Senta agrees to marry him. What's more, she swears to be faithful forever, and the Dutchman dares to think that he has finally beaten the curse.

In ACT THREE, we again see the two ships. The men in Daland's crew call over to the Dutchman's vessel, and gradually, its crew appears. They're a grim collection of men who share their captain's fate -- to sail the seas for eternity.

On shore, Erik comes to Senta. He reminds her of old times, and begs her to reconsider her promise to the Dutchman. When she refuses, he accuses her of infidelity. The Dutchman has been listening in secret. Assuming he's about to lose Senta's love, he returns to his ship and prepares to set sail. But Senta is determined to save him and follows, while others try to restrain her. The Dutchman then declares his true identity.

As his ship is leaving, Senta frees herself, and climbs to the top of a bluff. Again, she declares that she'll be faithful to the Dutchman until death. Then she leaps into the sea, trying to follow him. As the Dutchman's ship crumbles and sinks, a vision of Senta and the Dutchman, embracing each other, rises from the water. Through Senta, and her sacrifice, the Dutchman has finally found peace.