The Flying Dutchman was a sea captain who once found himself struggling to round the Cape of Good Hope during a ferocious storm. He swore that he would succeed even if he had to sail until Judgment Day. The Devil heard his oath, and took him up on it; the Dutchman was condemned to stay at sea forever. His only hope for salvation was to find a woman who loved him enough to declare herself faithful to the Dutchman for life — no matter what. To top it off, he could only stop sailing once every seven years, to go ashore and search for that one true love.
In Wagner's opera, the Dutchman's story is actually told three times: musically, in the overture; poetically, in the famous passage called Senta's Ballad; and dramatically, in the stage action as a whole.
Following that stormy overture, we see a ship struggling to reach port in a sheltered cove. The captain is a Norwegian named Daland, who lives nearby with his daughter, Senta.
Another ship appears — a gloomy-looking vessel with black masts and blood-red sails. Its captain is the legendary Dutchman. His latest seven-year stint is up, and the ship enters the harbor so the Dutchman can go ashore and search for love. The two captains meet, and Daland tells the Dutchman about his daughter Senta. Thinking she might be the woman he's looking for, the Dutchman offers Daland his entire fortune in return for an introduction. Daland agrees, and the two ships sail for Daland's home.
Next, we meet Senta herself. She's in Daland's house, spinning wool with her friends, and she sings them the ballad of the Flying Dutchman. Finishing the story, she stares at a painting of the Dutchman, and says she will be the one to save him. Senta does have a suitor, a hunter named Erik. But she's obsessed with the legendary Dutchman, leaving Erik jealous of a supposed myth.
When Daland's ship lands, the other women leave to greet the sailors, and Daland arrives at home with a man Senta has never seen before. He's the Dutchman, and she immediately notices his resemblance to the picture on the wall. Daland leaves the two alone.
Alan Held ................ The Dutchman
Jennifer Wilson ................ Senta
Gidon Saks ..................... Daland
Ian Storey ......................... Erik
Janice Meyerson ............... Mary
Andreas Conrad ....... Steersman
The Washington National Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Heinz Fricke, conductor
When the Dutchman professes his love, Senta agrees to marry him. She swears she'll be faithful to him forever, and the Dutchman dares to think that he has finally beaten the curse.
In port, we again see two ships — the worn and gloomy ship of the Dutchman, and Daland's bright, white-sailed vessel. From the shore, local women and the men from Daland's crew call to the dark ship 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 love for the Dutchman. When she refuses, he accuses her of infidelity. The Dutchman has been listening in secret. Assuming that he has lost Senta's love, he returns to his ship and prepares to set sail. Senta is determined to save him and follows, while others try to restrain her.
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, and proves it by leaping into the sea. The curse is broken. The Dutchman's ship crumbles and sinks. A vision of Senta and the Dutchman is seen over the water, and the music reveals the story's ending: Senta's sacrifice has brought the Dutchman his peace.