You have to feel sorry for Richard Wagner sometimes. You write one opera featuring busty blond bimbos wearing armoured bras flying winged horses and you never live it down. On top of that, over fifty years after you’re dead, some guys come along with pretty nasty ideas about racial purity and lay claim to your music to help their cause. As if you can control what's going to happen to your work after you're dead and buried, this still causes people to cast aspersions on your name.
The connection people have always made between Wagner and the Nazis has been his choice of material, but he was only doing what so many other opera writers before and since have done: work with the tales and mythology of one's people.
The Nazis corrupted everything they could about the past and mythology in order to give an air of legitimacy to their claim of being a master race. Hence the stories that Wagner used for the Ring Cycle, which were based on Nordic myths and featured the characters from them.
This just happened to be the same material the Nazis would utilize for their perversion of reality fifty years later. Who’s more blond-haired or blue-eyed than Viking Gods and Goddesses?
Unlike the Nazis, Wagner cast a wider net for his inspiration and didn't just stick to mythology to find his stories that he would set to music. One of the classic tales of Northern Europe that he used was the folktale of The Flying Dutchman.
For those not familiar with the story, a Dutch sea Captain makes a deal with the devil and is sentenced to sail the oceans for eternity. Once every seven years he is given a chance to win the faithful love of a woman. If he is successful, the curse will be broken and he'll be set free.
In Der Fliegende Hollander, Wagner's scenario is that the Dutchman has earned his septennial year reprieve and has taken shelter from a storm in a port in Norway. The Dutchman befriends the captain of a neighbouring vessel, who becomes so taken with him and his apparent wealth that he offers the Dutchman his daughter's hand in marriage. (Hey, nobody said opera had anything to do with reality; anyway it's a fairy tale so hush already.)
Up at the home of the Norwegian Captain, his daughter Senta sits and stares at a picture of the mythical Flying Dutchman and her handsome Captain that just happens to be hanging on a wall in their house. She sings a romantic ballad about how she'd love to be the one to break the curse. Lo and behold, Daddy brings the guy from the picture home for dinner — and her hand in marriage.
This being a romantic opera, you just know things aren't going to go according to plan. Of course the hero can't die – he's already dead, but he can lose his chance at having the curse released, while the heroine can of course croak in the finest opera tradition. The usual trouble ensues because of a jealous boyfriend who intercedes to prevent the lovers from being joined by revealing to her father that his future son-in-law is, in fact, a ghost.
The spectre of his daughter marrying someone not all there, so to speak, overwhelms the stolid middle class burgher and he forbids the marriage. As the Dutchman sets sail and his ship heads towards the horizon line, Senta, in true romantic heroine fashion, breaks away from her daddy dearest and the dotting dotard of a boyfriend and heads to the nearest convenient cliff side overlooking the ocean. She swears undying fealty to the departing Captain and plunges to her death.
The curse is immediately lifted. The Flying Dutchman sinks and the opera ends with the lovers’ shades rising from the depths, clutched in each other's arms, dead, happily ever after. I know what it sounds like — pure 19th century romantic schmaltz, with a storyline that makes the Bronte sisters look like the height of realism and rationality.
In opera, the story is only the framework for the music, not the other way around like its antecedent, musical theatre. Very few operas were written for the purpose of telling a story. They were a means of combining the human voice and orchestra to communicate human emotions. While choral work was the home for spiritual, uplifting vocal music, opera made the radical departure of using the human voice to express the temporal aspects of the human condition.
This was of course especially true of the Romantic period, during which Wagner was creating his work. Think of the poetry of Shelly, Lord Byron, and novels like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights by the Bronte sisters and their extravagant emotions, and you'll get the general idea of what was being attempted by the composers of the day through music
These characteristics are made abundantly clear in Opera D'Oro's digital re-mastering of the 1959 Beyreouth's Festival performance of Der Fliegende Hollander ( The Flying Dutchman). As the Festival's sole purpose is to produce the work of Wagner, there's no finer place to hear a performance of his work. Not only do they perform only Wagner's work here, the maestro himself designed the theatre so it would be acoustically perfect for his work.
Wagner's work, maybe even more then other composers, relies heavily on the ability of the conductor and the singers to integrate the voice and orchestral parts seamlessly. The orchestra sets the stage for the voice emotionally by establishing an atmosphere appropriate to an upcoming aria, and then supports the singer to carry the audience into the world of that feeling.
Listen to how the orchestra sets the stage for the Dutchman's initial entrance; the feeling of gloom and doom that pervades the air is close to being thick enough to cut with a knife. You just know this is not a happy guy and he has serious issues he has to deal with; he and the orchestra proceed to let you know all about them.
The names of the leads in this production didn't mean anything to me beforehand, but now I know to look for any work which features George London Bass/Baritone, who sang the part of the Dutchman, and Leonie Rysanek, Soprano, who sang the part of Senta. (By the way, she dispels another myth about opera in general and Wagner in particular – if you're waiting for the fat lady to sing, you'll be waiting long after it's over and done with.)
Not only do London and Rysanek complement each other, they also work with the orchestra and conductor to create whatever effect is desirable for a scene or aria to work to it's fullest. As this opera is so reliant on the abilities of the two leads, it is important that their work be as close to impeccable as possible, and both London and Rysanek give superb performances.
Of course an opera can live and die by its orchestra, choir, and conductor. A conductor with a heavy hand or no ear for pace can easily ruin the texture of a piece by either rushing through arias or continually going for volume over substance. It takes incredible attention to detail to control the elements of lead singers, chorus, and the orchestra to produce the harmonious sound quality essential for an opera to succeed.
In the case of this production, the conductor is working with the home field advantage. Bayreuth comes with its own orchestra and chorus whose raison d'être is Wagner and nothing else. The challenge remains for the conductor to be able to integrate not only the soloists into that mix, but his ideas on how the score should be followed.
Wolfgang Sawallisch does a marvelous job in that you never notice him. Like anybody that pulls the strings that cause a production to happen, he or she are only really noticed when things go wrong. In this case, he is distinguished by his anonymity.
A major concern with any older piece of classical music, especially opera, and a live performance at that, is how the sound quality is going to be. There's nothing that digitally re-mastering can do about music that wasn't picked up by the microphones in the first place. Thankfully, not only was the Bayreuth Festival Hall built with the audience in mind, it seems to be an ideal place for recordings.
This is the second performance I've heard recorded live from this hall in the fifties, and the sound is again exemplary. In fact I'd say it's superior to some live concerts I've heard recorded since with supposedly superior equipment. Even though it's in mono, the sound is crystal clear with very little background noise and no distracting hisses and pops.
Der Fliegende Hollander was one of Richard Wagner's earliest works and is far more accessible than some of his later pieces might be. For the person new to opera who is looking to get their feet wet with a shorter less intense work, The Flying Dutchman is a good choice. Opera D'Oro's presentation of the 1959 live production from the Bayreuth Festival is as good, if not better than, anything else on the market. The price can't be matched. Now that seems like a harmonious situation, if I've ever heard one.