The Flying Dutchman (German title: Der fliegende Holländer) is an opera, with music and libretto by Richard Wagner. Wagner originally wrote it to be performed without intermission — an example of his efforts to break with tradition — and, while today's opera houses sometimes still follow this directive, it is most often performed in three acts. The central theme is redemption through love, which Wagner returns to in most of his subsequent operas.
Wagner conducted the premiere at the Semper Oper in Dresden, 1843. This work marks the first major shift in Wagner's oeuvre away from conventional opera and towards music drama. That is, rather than relying on a series of individual songs with clear boundaries, he created an uninterrupted melody filled with leitmotifs (literally, "leading motifs") associated with the characters and themes. The leitmotifs are all introduced in the overture, which begins with a well-known ocean or storm motif before moving into the Dutchman and Senta motifs.
The story comes from the legend of the Flying Dutchman, about a ship captain condemned to sail until Judgement Day. Wagner claimed in Mein Leben that the inspiration was partly autobiographical, arising during his stormy sea crossing in July and August 1839, but a more likely source is Heinrich Heine's retelling in his Aus den Memoiren des Herren von Schnabelewopski.
Flying here means "rushing", not "travelling by air". The opera is referred to in English by its original title or in translation.
Place: on the coast of Norway.
On his homeward journey, the sea-captain Daland is compelled by stormy weather to seek a port of refuge. He leaves the helmsman on watch and he and the sailors retire. (Song of the helmsman: "With tempest and storm on distant seas.") The helmsman falls asleep. A ghostly vessel appearing astern is dashed against Daland's vessel by the sea and the grappling irons hold the two ships together. Invisible hands furl the sails. A man of pale aspect, dressed in black, his face framed by a thick black beard, steps ashore. He laments his fate. (Aria: "The time has come and seven years have again elapsed.") Having broken his troth, he is cursed to roam the sea forever without rest. An angel brought to him the terms of his redemption: at the end of every seven years the angry waves cast him upon the shore; if he can find a wife who will be true to him he will be released. Daland meets him. The ghost offers him treasure, and when he hears that Daland has an unmarried daughter, he asks for her as his wife. Tempted by gold Daland consents, and favoured by the south wind joyfully acclaimed by Daland's men (repetition of the song of the helmsman and chorus), both vessels set sail.
Girls are singing and spinning in Daland's house. (Spinning chorus: "Spin, spin, fair maiden.") Senta dreamily gazes upon the picture of the Flying Dutchman, whom she desires to save. Against the will of her nurse she sings the story of the Dutchman (Ballad with the Leitmotiv), how Satan heard him swear and took him at his word, she declares she will save him by her fidelity. Erik arrives and hears her; the girls depart, and the huntsman, who loves the maiden, warns her, telling her of his dream, in which Daland returned with a mysterious stranger, who carried her off to sea. She listens with delight, and Erik leaves her in despair. Daland arrives with the stranger; he and Senta stand gazing at each other in silence. Daland is scarcely noticed by his daughter, even when he presents his guest as her betrothed. In the following duet, which closes the act, Senta swears to be true till death.
Later in the evening the crew of Daland invite the men on the strange vessel to join in the festivities, but in vain. The girls retire in wonder; ghostly forms appear at work upon the vessel of the Flying Dutchman, and Daland's men retreat in fear. Senta arrives, followed by Erik, who reproves her for her desertion, as she had formerly loved him and vowed constancy. When the stranger, who has been listening, hears these words, he is overwhelmed with despair, as now he is forever lost. He summons his men, tells Senta of the curse, and to the consternation of Daland and his crew declares that he is the "Flying Dutchman." Hardly has he left the shore when Senta plunges into the sea, faithful unto death. This is his salvation. The spectral ship disappears, and Senta and the Dutchman are seen ascending to heaven.
The plot is taken from Leo Melitz (1921). The Opera Goer's Complete Guide.