September 22, 2011


Wagner: Der Fliegende Holländer. Matti Salminen, bass; Ricarda Merbeth, soprano; Robert Dean Smith, tenor; Silva Hablowetz, mezzo-soprano; Steve Davislim, tenor; Albert Dohmen, bass-baritone; Rundfunkchor Berlin and Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $29.99 (2 SACDs).

     Operagoers and at-home listeners may be forgiven if they think of The Flying Dutchman as Wagner’s first opera, since it is the earliest one performed with any frequency. But it is really his fourth. Die Feen had Wagner doing Marschner better than Marschner did himself; Das Liebesverbot was a kind of Wagnerian take on Rossini; and Rienzi, a long and difficult opera that deserves to be heard more often, was quite deliberately written in the manner of Meyerbeer. Then came The Flying Dutchman, the first opera in which Wagner began to establish a style of his own, complete with early use of a leitmotif approach to themes. PentaTone plans to release 10 Wagner operas from now until 2013, the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth, and has started with a remarkably fine live recording of a concert performance of The Flying Dutchman, conducted by Marek Janowski and recorded in outstandingly clear and wide-ranging SACD sound.

     The Flying Dutchman is not as tightly knit as Wagner’s later operas and is more traditional in form and characterization; it is not quite the “music drama” that later operas would be. But it is filled with elements of later Wagner that are striving, as it were, to escape from their developmental chrysalis. The magical, fairy-tale-like relationship between Senta and the Dutchman looks ahead just as surely as the folksy tunes of the Steersman and the girls with their spinning wheels look backward; the chorus of Daland’s sailors is from an older operatic form, while the response from the Dutchman’s crew – including two extended periods of silence – looks decidedly forward in creativity and eeriness. What Janowski does exceptionally well in this performance is make all the disparate elements into a coherent whole, giving The Flying Dutchman considerable scope and grandeur.

     The well-chosen voices have a lot to do with Janowski’s success. Matti Salminen’s dark bass lets him create a gruff, simple-minded but good-hearted Daland, a fine contrast to Steve Davislim’s light, almost airy tenor – which makes the Steersman barely more than a boy and helps explain how readily he falls asleep while on watch in the first act. In strong contrast to both is Albert Dohmen’s bass-baritone, with which he portrays a Dutchman genuinely tormented by his fate and railing against it with equal parts strength and impotence. Here there is a sense of the defiant captain who once challenged the Devil and earned centuries of unwished-for life – he is bowed but by no means beaten, for all that the weight of years lies heavily upon him. Dohmen makes the Dutchman a tormented but not unattractive character: there is power here as well as anguish. There is more power than usual as well in Robert Dean Smith’s performance as Erik: this is an unforgiving, one-dimensional role, with which it is difficult to do very much, but Smith’s Erik is at least a little bit more than a complainer. He seems to feel genuine anguish at Senta’s growing disaffection, although it remains hard to imagine what she ever saw in him.

     Ricarda Merbeth has a strong soprano and a near-hysterical manner as Senta, her performance teetering on the verge of a mad scene several times but always barely pulling back. She is clearly a woman on the edge (in strong contrast to mezzo-soprano Silvia Hablowetz, who makes a kind but rather simple and thoroughly overmatched Mary). Merbeth’s intensity in singing the Dutchman’s legend is a match for Dohmen’s own strength in recounting his plight, and it is clear from their separate deliveries of elements of the story that they are destined to be together. Their actual meeting is, as a result, almost an anticlimax, except that their intermingled voices bring the story to an even higher pitch of near-ecstatic intensity, just as Wagner intended.

     Add to all the fine soloists some excellent choral singing – the contrasting ships’ choruses in the third act are particularly good – and very fine playing by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, with Janowski keeping a firm hand on the proceedings throughout, and you have a truly outstanding version of The Flying Dutchman, with the added attraction of a strong, solid, book-like package with the full libretto bound inside. The whole presentation creates substantial hopes for the nine other Wagner operas that Janowski will conduct and that PentaTone will release. The operas will not be presented in order of composition – the next one will be Parsifal, the composer’s final work and a particularly difficult opera to present effectively in our highly secular age. Still, if Janowski can make The Flying Dutchman seem as unified as he does in this recording, he may well find an equally creative and musically valid approach to Parsifal and, thereafter, to Wagner’s other great music dramas. Certainly this excellent release raises Wagner lovers’ hopes to a very high level.

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