A Dutch sea captain once desperately attempted to round a cape during a storm. He cursed and swore, "In all eternity I won’t give up!" Satan heard, took him at his word, and doomed him to sail the seas for all eternity. An angel took pity on him and opened a path to salvation: Every seven years the Dutchman would be allowed on shore for one day. If, in that day, he is able to find a wife to be faithful until death, he would be redeemed. If, however, the woman does not keep her vow, she would share his fate of eternal damnation.
On its journey home, the ship of the Norwegian Captain Daland is forced to seek shelter in a small bay. While the crew and Daland rest on board, his steersman stays on watch. Trying to keep himself awake by singing a song, the steersman finally also falls asleep.
Daland wakes up and meets the mysterious stranger. During their conversation the Dutchman offers Daland a rich treasure if he will shelter him in his home. When the Dutchman learns that Daland has a daughter he asks him for her hand in marriage. Tempted by the gold, Daland agrees having no idea about the Dutchman’s true identity. The southwind blows and both vessels leave for Daland's home.
- Intermission -
Back home the women are waiting for the return of the sailors and entertain themselves by singing during work. Senta, Daland’s daughter does not participate because she is mesmerized by a portrait of the Flying Dutchman. Her Nurse Mary is scolding her for her obsession with the old legend. Annoyed by the girls’ song, Senta sings the Ballad of the Flying Dutchman and gets so carried away by compassion for the poor sailor that the women get scared. Just when Senta cries out that she wants to be the one women to redeem the Dutchman, her former boyfriend, the hunter Eric, enters with the news that the sailors have returned home.
The women rush out to greet them, but Eric holds Senta back to talk to her about their relationship. He is worried for her and tells her about a dream he had in which Daland returned with a mysterious stranger, who carried her off to sea. Again she reacts with enthusiastic excitement and Eric leaves in horror and despair.
Daland enters with the Dutchman. He shows Senta the treasures he had received and tells her that he would like for her to marry the generous stranger. Then Daland leaves the two alone.
In a special, almost surreal moment, both Senta and the Dutchman express wonder in the fulfillment of their longings. Senta believes to recognize in the stranger the destined sailor from her portrait and the Dutchman sees in Senta his final chance of salvation. In spite of the Dutchman’s warning that she would face a grim fate if she could not keep her word, Senta swears to him eternal faithfulness.
Daland returns and Senta repeats her vow in front of her father who happily makes arrangements to prepare the engagement celebration.
At the port, the festivities have started. Only the crew on board the Dutchman’s ship doesn’t join. Offering them food and drink, the townspeople call the crew to join them in celebrattion. As they receive no answer they joke about the ghostly ship and mockingly connect it to the legend of the Flying Dutchman. All of a sudden the ghost ship comes to life in a frightening scene. Provoked by the mocking, ghostly apparitions of dead sailors scare the townspeople away. They leave in horror after unsuccessfully trying to stand their ground by singing merry songs.
Senta arrives ready to get married, but Eric has followed her and tries to convince her to change her mind. He is in disbelief how she could agree to marry a complete stranger. Senta seems determined until Eric reminds her of the day when she swore her eternal faith to him.
The Dutchman, overhearing that moment, interprets Senta’s pity for Eric to be affection, and believes this is end of his hopes. He orders his crew to make ready to sail and although Senta desperately tries to reassure him of her faithfulness he is determined to leave. He wants to save Senta from her awful fate of eternal damnation and since she hasn’t taken her vow yet in front of God he is able to release her.
Revealing his true identity to the horrified bystanders, the Dutchman sails off. In a final act of ultimate sacrifice, Senta throws herself from a cliff swearing to the Dutchman faithfulness until death. Finally the curse is broken and the moment of redemption has come for the Flying Dutchman.