WAGNER: Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) WWV 63 (complete opera) – Albert Dohmen, bass-baritone (Der Holländer)/ Matti Salminen, bass (Daland)/ Ricarda Merbeth, soprano (Senta)/ Robert Dean Smith, tenor (Erik)/ Silvia Hablowetz, mezzo- soprano (Mary)/ Rundfunkchor Berlin/ Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/ Marek Janowski – PentaTone Classics multichannel SACD PTC 518640 (two discs), 78:35; 47:54 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
With The Flying Dutchman, the fifth of Wagner’s operas, the composer entered his musical maturity. Wagner himself saw it as a breakthrough. In his “Eine Mitteilung an meine Freunde” (“A Communication to my Friends”) written in 1851, ten years after the opera, Wagner maintained, “My course was new; it was bidden me by my inner mood, and forced upon me by the pressing need to impart this mood to others. In order to enfranchise myself from within outwards, i. e., to address myself to the understanding of like-feeling men, I was driven to strike out for myself, as artist, a path as yet not pointed me by any outward experience; and that which drives a man hereto is Necessity, deeply felt, incognizable by the practical reason, but overmastering Necessity.”
The roots of the opera lie in Wagner’s experiences after fleeing his post as conductor of the court orchestra in Riga, a job he really wasn’t fond of, but the immediate cause of his taking it on the lam was that he had run up huge debts, and his creditors were closing in.
Wagner and his wife Minna intended to make their way to Paris, but the ship they took across the North Sea ran into storms that forced them to ride out the bad weather among the fjords of Norway. When Wagner finally got to Paris weeks later, he couldn’t sell his new opera Rienzi to the Opéra and was forced to work for two years arranging and copying scores, jobs that barely kept the couple fed over the next two years.
Then he got the idea of writing a one-act opera, including the libretto, which might be more palatable to Parisians than his rejected grand opera. Wagner chose as his subject a sketch in Heinrich Heine’s satirical novel Aus den Memoiren des Herrn von Schnabelewopski (“From the Memoirs of Mr. von Schnabelewopski”). It retold the old folktale of the Flying Dutchman, who in essence sells his soul to the devil, making an oath during a storm at sea that if he can just sail around the cape he’s approaching through impassible headwinds, he’ll be content to sail forever. The devil grants his wish and claims his trophy, but being a compassionate devil, he allows the Dutchman to go ashore once every seven years to search for a mate whose commitment to him will free him. At the point where Wagner’s opera begins, the Dutchman and his ghostly crew have been sailing for ages, his once-in-seven-years sojourns ashore so far unsuccessful. But then he meets up with the Norwegian ship captain Daland, who offers him hope in the form of his beautiful daughter Senta. (Heine’s original story has the Dutchman landing in Scotland, but thinking of his misadventures in the North Sea, Wagner relocated the story to Norway.) When Wagner failed to make a deal for a performance in Paris, he decided to expand the opera, debuting this expanded version in Dresden in 1843.
The Flying Dutchman has many of the hallmarks of Wagner’s later music dramas, including the use of leitmotifs, though not to the extent he was to use them in The Ring. The characters Senta and the Dutchman both have immediately identifiable motifs, as do the Norwegian sailors, given some rollicking hornpipe-like music, and these themes reappear and undergo elaboration and variation as the opera proceeds, just as in later Wagner operas. Many of the scenes show Wagner working toward his idea of continuous melody: Auf hohem Felsen lag ich träumend (“I lay dreaming on the lofty cliff”), the duet between Erik and Senta at the end of Act 2, has a dreamlike, slow-paced unfolding, the melodic line meandering and chromatic, punctuated here and there by snatches of the leitmotifs as if to provide contrast to this melodically fluid number. However, Wagner wasn’t able to entirely overthrow the tyranny of the recitative-and-aria model. On the other hand, The Flying Dutchman is one of Wagner’s most melodious operas, the traditional set pieces such as the spinning song from the Second Act and Erik’s cavatina from the Third supplying memorably attractive music.
This Pentatone recording comes from a series of concert performances of the ten most important Wagner operas during the 2010 season. Pentatone’s intention is to roll out these performances between now and 2013, Wagner’s bicentenary year. It’s an ambitious project and with this first in the series gets off to a commendable start. Conductor Marek Janowski, a Pentatone regular, is a very good choice to helm the project. He’s long been associated with Wagner on recordings—he made the first digital recording of The Ring back in the 80s—and conducts with the right measure of passion and restraint, the passion heard right away in the exciting Overture. But Janowski also accompanies tactfully; the solo voices get “stepped” on very infrequently—which is hard to avoid, given the vicissitudes of live performance and Wagner’s often stentorian orchestra. I know Janowski’s work mostly from orchestral performances, but I hear the same command of instrumental color and sensitive shaping of phrases as I find in his Brahms, Berlioz, and Saint-Saëns.
His soloists, especially the males, are mostly very reliable as well. Swedish bass Matti Salminen has a commanding voice, of course, but he also shades Daland’s character very successfully, managing the delicate balancing act that it represents—a loving father, an able and companionable seaman, who is nonetheless seduced by the other love of his life, riches. A number of such balancing acts occur among the characters of the opera: Albert Dohmen is just as successful at presenting the world-weary Dutchman (and he’s seen many, many corners of the world) who suddenly comes passionately alive to the possibility of Senta’s redeeming love. The smaller male roles are well covered, too, by Robert Dean Smith (Erik) and silky-voiced Steve Davislim (Steurermann).
The two women project their characters convincingly: there’s a slight air of befuddlement to Silvia Hablowetz’s Mary, who fails to ride herd on her young female charges, especially the passionate Senta. And Ricarda Merbeth’s Senta is passionate, as well as conflicted and sometimes downright lost. There’s nobility in her final appearance that makes her fully a match for the larger-than-life Dutchman. But then—there’s that vibrato, wide enough you can cut it with the proverbial knife. If only she had cut it a little thinner or dispensed with it altogether. For me, this is one feature that takes some of the joy out of a powerful musical experience. So if vibrato laid down with a broad brush is one of your particular bêtes noires, be forewarned.
Pentatone’s live recording from the Berlin Philharmonie is potent. Orchestra and chorus are realistically placed, and the recording realistically adds depth to that perspective. Yet these forces are every bit as powerfully and immediately recorded as the solo voices. Since this is a concert performance, there is little of the distraction that stage business usually imposes on a recording. Surround sound is tastefully employed; for the most part, the rear speakers just give a realistic sense of the hall, except for the famous chorus Johohoe! in the last act, where the Dutch sailors are supposed to be heard from below decks (along with several strident onstage piccolos!). In 5.0 surround sound, the sailors’ voices seem to come from over your left shoulder. The voices have the properly spooky, veiled quality they’d have in the theater, which is all to the good, but they also seem to be recorded in a small, airless space, which puts something of a damper on the experience. (This isn’t true in stereo, where the voices are heard on the left side of the soundstage, in what sounds like the same acoustic space as the rest of the forces involved.) That’s my one gripe with the sonics; otherwise, the recording, in either surround sound or stereo, is first-rate.
So I have just a couple of issues to lodge and a good deal of praise to bestow on this start to Pentatone’s Wagner series. Here’s hoping the other installments are at least as fine. [Nice thick bound libretto, and this double-disc set seems to selling for the price of a single SACD…Ed.]
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