Great moments in opera: Der Fliegende Holländer

March 4, 2010

Over the past month or so I have been working my way through most of Wagner’s pre-Ring operas.  I am intending to tackle the Ring itself soon, but before I do I thought I would back-up, to 1843, and hear the first of his operas that has entered the standard repertoire: Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman).  This opera is a much more traditional work than were his later ones: it has tuneful melodies that could pass for arias, rousing choruses, and the leitmotif technique, while present, does not dominate the music.

The story is about a mysterious Dutchman doomed to sail the seas to all eternity unless he can find a woman who will love him until death.   There are few eligible women on the high seas, so every seven years he is permitted a space of shore leave in order to try his luck with the local ladies.  As the opera begins his ship approaches a Norwegian coastal village where there lives a young woman of romantic temperament, Senta, who knows the Dutchman’s legend and who believes that she could be the one to rescue him.   There is, however, another young man, Eric, who loves Senta.  When the Dutchman learns this, he returns to his ship in despair and sails away.  Senta, unwilling to lose his love, throws herself from a cliff and into the sea.  As the curtain falls, the two lovers, Senta and the Dutchman, are seen ascending into heaven.  All of this takes about 2-1/2 hours in performance.

In Act II Senta sings a dramatic song, colloquially called “Senta’s Ballad”, in which she recounts for the other women of the village the legend of the Dutchman. Here it is, sung by Lisbeth Balslev in a Bayreuth production, and with English subtitles.

My other favourite section of this opera is the Act II duet between Senta and the Dutchman, Wirst du des Vaters Wahl nicht schelten, in which Senta declares her love and her desire to save the Dutchman from his curse.  Here it is in a 1983 Paris production, with Jose Van Dam singing the Dutchman and Dunja Vejzovic singing Senta. The subtitles are in French, but the English translation can be found here (scroll down).  The person who enters near the end of this clip is Senta’s father.

The recording to which I listened this week was this one, with Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting a good group of singers.  Not having heard the opera before it is hard for me to know how it compares to other recordings, but I enjoyed it.  I tried but failed to borrow a DVD of the opera, so I was not able to view a staging.

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