WAGNER: Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) – Terje Stensvold (Der Holländer)/ Kwangchul Youn (Daland)/ Anja Kampe (Senta)/ Christopher Ventris (Erik)/ Jane Henschel (Mary)/ Thomas Russell (Der Steuermann)/ Royal Concertgebouw Orch./ Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks/ WDR Rundfunkchor Köln/ NDR Chor/ Andris Nelsons – RCO Live RCO 14004 (2 CDs), 135:57 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

I am a little surprised that this wasn’t released in SACD—anything by Wagner, especially with this orchestra, deserves the full treatment, and if this is really the first Wagner opera recording by the Concertgebouw—which I believe it is—then all the more to fill up the balloons and celebrate. But it was not to be, so we are left with a recording that sounds very good but doesn’t approach state of the art, even for two-channel. This doesn’t mean it’s bad—it’s actually very good—yet I kept envisioning what it might have been. The piece is “live” but also a concert recording, which eliminates many of the normal distractions—or atmosphere if you like to hear operatic stage noises—and generally speaking the entire production is presented in a clean and audible excellence.

The title role is problematic—though Terje Stensvold is an accomplished Wagnerian and knows this role very well, there are times when the raspy nature of the voice can’t be definitively ascribed to either acting or vocal insufficiency—I tend to think the latter. At any rate, this Dutchman sounds old and tired, as well we all might be if bound eternally to sail the rather lonely mystical seas, but I can’t be convinced that the young Senta (sung admirably by Anja Kempein in a role of tremendous difficulties) sees him as the man of her dreams. Nevertheless, each of these roles has never been completely mastered by any two singers on record, and for the most part the pairing is satisfactory, especially if you take into consideration the cast as a whole. Jane Henschel is superb as Mary while Russell Thomas brings considerable life to the part of the Helmsman.

It was the composer’s 1830 trip from Riga to London that inspired the work, though the main is taken from Heinrich Heine’s The Memoirs of Mister von Schnabelewopski. The hints of Wagner’s later style, complete with leitmotifs, are present throughout, and the rebel in him led him initially to perform the work continuously without intermission. Today the piece is normally presented in its three-act guise. In comparing this one to the recent Pentatone set it’s difficult to say which I prefer; this one definitely has the better Senta, but overall I like the shape that Janowski fashions better, though Nelsons is no one to sneer at. But all things being equal, the sound casts the defining vote, and this RCO Live can’t complete in that category, while the Concertgebouw has only a marginal advantage over the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin on Pentatone. It could have been different, but alas, it’s not. But this is a worthy issue among contemporary recordings, of which there are surprisingly few. Many will want to stick with Klemperer, understandably, for all-around excellence, but this is a fine backup.

—Steven Ritter