As the new year begins, we welcome back our favorite Dutchman, Maestro de Waart, as an internationally acclaimed cast combine with striking visual effects to relay Wagner’s “storm-swept ballad.” It’s a compelling story of redemption through the power of unconditional love.
(Born 22 May 1813; Leipzig, Germany; Died 13 February 1883; Venice, Italy)
First performance: 2 January 1843; Dresden, Germany
Last MSO performance: MSO Premiere
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (tam tam), harp, strings
Approximate duration: 2 hours 11 minutes
In 1837, Wagner moved to Riga (in modern-day Latvia) to take up an appointment as the music director of the opera house there. Less than two years later, he and his wife, the actress Minna Planer, secretly fled the city to escape their creditors. They crossed into East Prussia and boarded a schooner in Pillau (now Baltiysk); their destination was Paris by way of London. En route to London, bad weather forced the ship to find shelter in the Norwegian fjord of Sandwike. The perilous voyage reminded him of the legend of the Flying Dutchman, which he had read in Heinrich Heine’s Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski.
Two years later (1841), living in Paris, the 28-year-old composer completed both the libretto and music of The Flying Dutchman. The overture was the last music to be composed. Underneath it, Wagner penned: “Per aspera ad astra. Gott geb’s.” (From struggle to the stars. God grant it.) His optimism was due to the fact that his opera Rienzi (1839-40) was to be produced by the Dresden court theatre. Its great success there in October 1842 led the management to immediately decide to present Dutchman as well.
Stylistically, Dutchman is classified as a romantic opera. Wagner had not yet reached the point where he insisted that his stage works be called music dramas. He did, however, make a quantum leap, compositionally, from Rienzi to Dutchman: the former is a five-act grand opera, influenced by the works of Meyerbeer and Spontini; the latter is divided in to musico-dramatic scenes, not put together from “numbers” (separate arias, duets, ensembles, choruses).
Fans of Wagner’s later music dramas, particularly his Ring cycle, are familiar with his leitmotif technique, in which a clearly defined theme or musical idea refers to a person, object, idea, etc. While there’s some of this in Dutchman, it is still in a developmental stage; his biographers prefer the terms “motifs of recollection” and “motivic recall.” Here are three to listen for, all set forth in the overture:
What follows is a synopsis of the plot, gleaned from Leo Melitz’s The Opera Goer’s Complete Guide (1921).
Coast of Norway. 18th century. On his homeward journey, the sea captain Daland is compelled by stormy weather to seek a port of refuge near Sandwike in southern Norway. He leaves the helmsman on watch and he and the sailors retire. (Helmsman’s song: “Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer”) The helmsman falls asleep. A ghostly vessel appearing astern is dashed against Daland’s vessel by the sea and the grappling irons hold the two ships together. Invisible hands furl the sails. A man of pale aspect, dressed in black, his face framed by a thick black beard, steps ashore. He laments his fate. (Aria: “Die Frist ist um”) Because he once invoked Satan, the ghost captain is cursed to roam the sea forever without rest. An angel brought to him the terms of his redemption: Every seven years the waves will cast him upon the shore; if he can find a wife who will be true to him, he will be released from his curse.
Daland wakes up and meets the stranger. The stranger hears that Daland has an unmarried daughter named Senta, and he asks for her hand in marriage, offering a chest of treasure as a gift. Tempted by gold, Daland agrees to the marriage. The south wind blows and both vessels set sail for Daland’s home.
A group of local girls are singing and spinning in Daland’s house. (Spinning chorus: “Summ und brumm, du gutes Rädchen”) Senta, Daland’s daughter, dreamily gazes upon a gorgeous picture of the legendary Dutchman that hangs from the wall; she desires to save him. Against the will of her nurse, she sings to her friends the story of the Dutchman, how Satan heard him swear and took him at his word. (Ballad: “Johohoe! Traft ihr das Schiff”) She vows to save him by her fidelity.
The huntsman Erik, Senta’s former boyfriend, arrives and hears her; the girls depart, and the huntsman, who loves the maiden, warns her, telling her of his dream, in which Daland returned with a mysterious stranger, who carried her off to sea. She listens with delight, and Erik leaves in despair.
Daland arrives with the stranger; he and Senta stand gazing at each other in silence. Daland is scarcely noticed by his daughter, even when he presents his guest as her betrothed. In the following duet, which closes the act, Senta swears to be true till death.
Later in the evening, the local girls bring Daland’s men food and drink. They invite the crew of the strange vessel to join in the merry-making, but in vain. (Chorus: “Steuermann, lass die Wacht!”) The girls retire in wonder; ghostly forms appear at work upon the vessel The Flying Dutchman, and Daland’s men retreat in fear.
Senta arrives, followed by Erik, who reproves her for deserting him, as she had formerly loved him and vowed constancy. When the stranger, who has been listening, hears these words, he is overwhelmed with despair, as he thinks he is now forever lost. He summons his men, tells Senta of the curse, and to the consternation of Daland and his crew declares that he is the Flying Dutchman.
As the Dutchman sets sail, Senta throws herself into the sea, claiming that she will be faithful to him unto death. This is his salvation. The spectral ship disappears, and Senta and the Dutchman are seen ascending to heaven.
Recommended Recording: Norman Bailey, Janis Martin, Rene Kollo, Martii Talvela; Sir Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Decca)