RICHARD WAGNER: Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman)

by | Jul 5, 2008 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

RICHARD WAGNER: Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman)

Performers: Bengt Rundgren, Catarina Ligendza, Hermann Winkler, Ruth Hesse, Harald Ek, Donald McIntyre
Bavarian State Opera, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch
Adapted and directed by Vaclav Kaslik
Set design: Gerd Krauss and Herbert Strabel
Studio: Deutsche Grammophon [Distr. by Universal]
Video: 4:3 color; no region code
Audio: German PCM stereo, DTS 5.1
Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, and Chinese
Time: 117 minutes
Rating: ***

Filmed in 1974, this highly realistic rendition of Wagner’s early opera Der fliegende Holländer is sure to please both novices and seasoned Wagnerians. The first release on any format, this Bavaria Studios  production of the fable of the Flying Dutchman by Heinrich Heine, which Wagner set to such haunting music, is replete with cinematic effects— crashing waves, authentic ships, a ghoulish crew dancing in shallow water, and real feasting. These lifelike details lend the viewing experience an immediacy that whirls us 180 degrees away from the traditional staid productions. Add to this initially promising mix the spirited music making of veteran Wagnerian conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch, and one should have the makings of a first-rate production. Alas, although this DVD has numerous elements to recommend it, Donald McIntyre’s mostly unconvincing singing and acting, coupled with poor lip synchronization, mars the performance to some degree. Nevertheless, there is plenty to enjoy here, not least the best characterization of Daland that I have ever seen. Bengt Rundgren is vocally perfect and a far more differentiated character than usual. He is sympathetic and human, rather than a stock figure, a natural, genuine seaman.

The prelude, rather than showing the orchestra (an all-too-common occurrence), tells the story pictorially, with the camera hovering over paintings of various scenes in chronological sequence. These visual effects, accompanied by Sawallisch’s dramatic, vibrant conducting and opulent surround sound, set the mood beautifully. And imparting an element of historical accuracy is the painting of a ship with red sails, a direct echo of Max Brückner’s 1901 set design for the first performance of this opera at the Bayreuth Festival.

When Act 1 opens, we see an actual ship in stormy waters. Harald Ek’s ever-smiling Steersman sounds suitably heroic. Of a sudden, a red-sailed ship approaches at great speed, and the sight is magnificent. A pair of black boots descends a ladder and walks in puddles. The boots belong to the Dutchman, here an overwrought and histrionic character. McIntyre wades and splashes during his first monologue (“Die Frist ist um”), which is highly distracting. As he grovels half in water and half among nautical bric-à-brac, he looks agonized and spooky. Unfortunately, the Dutchman-Daland duet is marred by too many close-ups. And although we hear the sound of a large chorus, only a few sailors are visible.

The spinning room in Act 2, with authentic-looking spinning wheels, is much larger than any operatic stage can accommodate, giving this scene a welcome spaciousness and realism. The choreography and the sound are terrific. Catarina Ligendza as Senta is in splendid voice, although she is not really singing. This mismatch becomes especially obvious during dramatic moments, when the vocals don’t match the singer’s facial expressions. Tant pis! There is a wonderful tableau of activity in the kitchen, with fires burning, vegetables being cleaned, and geese plucked. Hermann Winkler’s Erik is ardent, intense, and too loud. The Dutchman’s second monologue, “Wie aus der Ferne,” is poetically sung. McInyre looks tortured and is full of yearning. At last, he is true to character here. The couple’s duet evinces a real rapport between them, with the unexpected side effect of frissons. Within a few minutes of meeting the Dutchman (a vampirish figure in a black cape lined in red), Senta changes from an innocent maiden to an experienced woman with depth: no doubt the result of her exposure to him.

Act 3 shows the terrified townsmen barricading themselves against the Dutchman’s ghostly crew, who sport monstrous faces and bloody hands, to no avail. Ligendza appears with a white shawl over her head, a Madonna-like figure. This Senta has her wits about her and knows exactly the worth of her sacrifice. The last scene is highly dramatic and dynamic. Ligendza swims toward the Dutchman’s ship, where the hapless pair drowns together. The final shot of luminous clouds in the sky stands in for the couple’s transfiguration.

This DVD is a welcome addition to commercially available productions of this opera and a substantial improvement over Harry Kupfer’s concept-laden 1985 version, which was performed at the Bayreuth Festival (also on Deutsche Grammophon). A third but more soporific option is the Savonlinna Opera Festival’s 2005 production, with Hildegard Behrens as a wonderful Senta and Matti Salminen as a powerful Daland (on Kultur).

– Dalia Geffen


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