In Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), a lovesick young woman sacrifices herself to redeem the troubled soul of the title character, a tortured man cursed to wander the seas until judgment day. In some ways, the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of François Girard’s 2020 production represents a similar second chance.

Girard’s staging opened to tepid reviews on March 2 of that year, just a week before the Met (and virtually every other cultural institution in the world) shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. As such, this season’s premiere felt almost like an alternate prima, with a strong international cast assembled, a buzzy young conductor in the pit, and the director on hand to shepherd the work back onstage. The end result, however, often felt as hopeless as the Dutchman’s early quest for salvation.

After Girard’s visually arresting and dramaturgically potent Parsifal in 2013, he seemed poised to become the Met’s new Wagner whisperer. Earlier this year, he debuted a new staging of Lohengrin, which came across as campy and fun, even as it punted some of the opera’s more serious themes. This Holländer, however, offers neither a clear narrative vision for the work nor a sense of turbocharged drama; it simply sits on the Met’s cavernous stage as a dull gray mass.

The sets by John Macfarlane call to mind neither a mythical Norway or a purgatorial liminal space – at their most pictorial in Act 1, Daland’s forced perspective ship could be an abandoned set piece from Pirates of the Caribbean. Wearing Moritz Junge’s severe sack-like costumes in Act 2, the women of the village resemble extras from The Handmaid’s Tale. The final act takes place in a boundless void, with the singers spaced around the stage, their engagement so limited it might as well be a concert performance.

The sole striking visual occurred during the second act “Spinning Chorus,” when a host of braided ropes dropped from the ceiling, which the female choristers vibrated as they sang rather than weaving at looms. But in my section of the orchestra, the slightly masturbatory image elicited its fair share of church laughter, and even though it made for a memorable stage picture, it left me wondering whether the director had put any thought into what the audience should take away from this opera.

A production of Der Fliegende Holländer can go in many directions: hyper-romantic, religious allegory, totalitarian parable, psychological drama. The Met’s previous production, pressed into intermittent service for 30 years, took the latter approach. But instead, Girard offers no coherent concept, or even a sense of basic understanding for the work. Die Frist ist simply glum.

The musical performance suffered from a similar lack of personality and drive. Much has been made in the press of Thomas Guggeis, who makes his North American debut with these performances (and will lead the same opera in Santa Fe this summer). The musical cognoscenti remain attached to the conductor-as-wunderkind mythos, and Guggeis fits the bill on several fronts: At 29, he’s risen quickly through the ranks of the German opera world, and he counts Daniel Barenboim and Christian Thielemann among his mentors. He assumes the music directorship of Oper Frankfurt this fall.

Throughout the evening, Guggeis delivered a competent but uninspired reading of the score. The orchestra played correctly, aside from occasional tuning issues in the brass, but with little sense of passion or dramatic tension. Dynamic variations seemed random. The majestic overture sounded like a frogmarch, with scant sense of the leading into the scary supernatural business to come, and often Guggeis seemed to rush his forces as a way of creating momentum to match the action onstage.

Lost in this choice, though, were the intriguing and singular details of the score, like the soon-to-vanish influence of Italian bel canto on young Wagner’s compositional still. There was no lightness or lift–only thunder.

Vocally, the evening belonged to Eric Cutler, returning to the Met after a ten-year absence, during which the American tenor has retooled as a heldentenor. Cutler retains the flexibility and legato that served him well for years as a bel canto specialist, and his voice has gained in volume and dark coloring. He brought these qualities to the role of Erik, who finds himself abandoned by his betrothed Senta in her quest to save the Dutchman’s soul. A committed actor, he communicated an aching tenderness in his last-act aria imploring Senta to resume their relationship.

In Europe, Culter sings roles like Bacchus, Siegmund and the Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten, parts that have been hard to satisfyingly cast at the Met in recent years. He should be invited stateside to explore the German repertoire more often.

Eve Gigliotti brought a stern countenance and a vibrant, fruity mezzo to the thankless role of Mary, and Dmitry Belosselskiy was as tender as Daland as he was terrifying as the Commendatore in Don Giovanni. The male and female choristers sounded somewhat faded under Donald Palumbo’s preparation, although they came alive finally in the double chorus that opens Act 3.

Tomasz Konieczny made a splash several seasons ago as Alberich, a performance that allegedly prompted Peter Gelb to offer him the lead in this revival on the spot. Sometimes the second impression is more important than the first, and while Konieczny can be praised for flawless delivery of text, his first local Dutchman was not a musical triumph.

The “Bayreuth Bark” has become a cliché when describing male Wagner singers, but it suits Konieczny’s choppy, legato-free style here, as well as the parched, leathery tone of his voice. Sure, the Dutchman hasn’t seen dry land in seven years, but I don’t think he should sound like he has a throat full of rainwater.

Girard’s direction does the singers no favors in terms of acting, but even within the limited range allowed by the production, Konieczny’s choices were largely restricted to raising his arms or turning his back dramatically to the audience. His Dutchman was a cipher, neither hopeful nor lost, and the opera’s final tableau failed to move me for the first time ever.

As Senta, Elza van den Heever began the second-act ballad with squally high notes and approximate pitch, though she ultimately settled into a credible, if somewhat small-scale, interpretation of the role. She lacked chemistry with Cutler and Konieczny and seemed unmoored by a deeply unflattering blond wig, which she tossed around like a Valley Girl most of the night.

Her vocal glory lies in the highest register, growing hollow as it moves into the middle and lower passages, a problem in a score that requires a certain amount of warmth at the lower end. Still, she is a committed performer, and with a better director, it’s conceivable that she could have found her way into the character more thoroughly.

After three more performances this season, the Dutchman returns to the high seas, and this production returns to storage. How long it will remain there has yet to be determined, but unlike a human soul, some things can’t be saved.

Photos: Ken Howard / Met Opera