Friday, October 06, 2006

The Flying Dutchman (a. k. a. Der Fliegende Hollander): first impressions

Over at Tears of a Clownsilly, Patrick is doing a series of essays about what he thinks of Wagner's operas. The best thing about blogs, I think, is that they serve as an excellent catalyst for projects like this that might not get carried out without some form of fake public accountability. With that in mind, I'm totally stealing his idea and doing the same thing.

I've actually seen quite a few of Wagner's operas- the whole Ring at the Royal Opera (under Haitink) and a well-regarded Parsifal at the ENO (though sung in English, natch). I'm still not sure if I liked them.

Wagner is, almost more than any other composer, a creature of the 19th century, with all the potential badness that can imply. Art in that century was mostly sprawl and churn: literature -- Gibbons, Trollope -- had gigantic words and spun on for hundreds of pages, David's painting attained an astonishing sheer yardage, Keats thought people would want to read tedious hundred-page epics idealizing faux-Grecian pastoral antics, and, of course, Wagner asked people to sit through Parsifal.

As I slowly get older and wiser, I discover that the art of this era is increasingly hard to take. To tolerate the libretto of a Wagner opera takes a superhuman effort to:

(a) not be bored

(b) not be a little contemptuous

(c) pretend to care about crowds of wholly unsympathetic, vaguely Germanic characters

This is hard. Now, granted, few opera librettos of any era have been especially good or vivid as literature, but most are a few notches above Wagner's on the tolerability scale.

This brings me to the first opera: The Flying Dutchman. In theory, this is a crackerjack idea for an opera, since German romanticism and ghost stories go together like märzen and schnitzel. It's hard to think of a more likeable opera, for instance, than Die Freischutz, whose Wolf's Glen scene is so good and exciting and grin-inducing that it completely excuses Weber for writing his irritating pyrotechnic clarinet concertos.

Unfortunately, Wagner's libretto is structured in such a way that we don't really get anything especially spooky or ghostly. A summary:


(Implied backstory, common knowledge in the 19th century, included in the program notes today: The Flying Dutchman swore to 'round Cape Horn in a howling tempest, and was... cursed for some reason to continue sailing until he'd found a faithful woman? He gets a chance to do this every seven years. Presumably, he's been at this a while, but this has not improved his dating skills. In other words, Wagner takes a spooky sailor's story and tries to shoehorn in a romantic angle.)

Through complicated maritime maneuvers, a wealthy Norwegian (?) merchant's ship is joined with the famous Flying Dutchman (in this case meaning the ship rather than the captain) after a storm. The DUTCHMAN assists the MERCHANT and shows off some treasure, resulting in the fastest offer a daughter's hand in marriage in opera history. The wind blows up and they head for home, where the previously mentioned daughter is to be examined.

Meanwhile, back at the anchorage, a bunch of maidens are spinning and singing. SENTA, the daughter, is spinning and staring longingly at a portrait of - the Flying Dutchman (in this case meaning the guy rather than the ship). This is a good example of the ghost-story motif so prevalent in most Norwegian interior decorating. Senta is really, really, into the painting, in a way that everyone admits is creepy. This is because, yes, that's really creepy, to stare with longing at a painting of a ghostly captain of maritime legend all the time. Eventually, the Merchant and Dutchman arrive, and Senta and the Dutchman fall in love instantaneously. So far, so good.

Back at the docked ships, the sailors are having a big party, to which they have invited Mädel (which is Wagnerese for 'girls'). Now, you'd think they'd want to leave the ship and hang out in a nice warm house on the shore, but presumably there are regulations. As a bunch of zombie kill-joys, the crew of the Flying Dutchman (meaning in this case the ship) aren't joining in the fun, prompting a fierce and one-sided song contest as the crew try to spur them into some merry-making. So, a big storm blows up as the irritated crew of the Flying Dutchman sing a really chilling song about being the crew of the Flying Dutchman (sort of the reverse of the opening number of 'H. M. S. Pinafore') and the whole affair gets awkward and the sailors leave, understandably.

Then, finally, there's a quick scene where SENTA's earlier betrothed, ERIK, gets all huffy about her engagement and asks whether she remembers promising to be true to him. (ERIK was in the wool-spinning scene, but just a tiny bit, so that his arrival at the end wouldn't be a total surprise.) Anyway, the Dutchman overhears this (ghosts eavesdrop) and immediately goes into a histrionic fit about how he's doomed and sprints for the quayside to go off and be damned upon the waves some more. Senta runs after him and jumps off a cliff, proving her love for ghostly sea captains and breaking his curse. The libretto says they ascend to heaven.


Yeah, so, clearly, there aren't very many good ghost story moments here, mainly because everything takes place in relatively cheery surroundings (stormy weather aside). "A Merchant's House" isn't nearly as scary a setting as "A Wolf's Glen".

It's therefore a miracle that, for all its problems, Wagner really does make the libretto work pretty well. It furnishes him with numerous opportunities for storms, and few would deny him the status of one of the great composers of storm-music. It is, moreover, stormy ocean music, a la Scheherezade, which means fast chromatic scales in the lower strings to indicate precipitous waves. Okay, I happen to like that sort of thing. I am easily sold on cheap program music gimmicks. A lot of the scenes work surprisingly spookily, such as Senta staring at the painting, or the thrilling storm during the song-contest (a certain held piccolo note is a fine example of the sort of orchestration that frustrates aspiring composers because it doesn't look even slightly special on paper but gives you a chill to hear it). Wagner's skill with more conventional opera moods makes even the abrupt marriage proposal and mutual love-at-first-sight feel almost plausible.

This, of course, is the magic of opera, and already in The Flying Dutchman Wagner is pretty comfortable with writing music in which the singers aren't really carrying a tune. They sort of declaim tuneful lines around the tune (which is in the orchestra) in a sort of combination of recitative and melody. In this opera, it works very well, since he can insert a lot of expository dialogue into active, bustling scenes rather than roll it out as proper recitative. (Yes, there's 'real' recitative in the opera too, and it's particularly tedious.) Moreover, by not always giving the characters proper arias and set-pieces, Wagner does create the illusion of The Flying Dutchman as a solid musicalization of a single story, a big slab of mood and noise that (mostly) flows together seamlessly. That's my theory, anyway.

So, do I like it? Well, a bit. As the old saw goes, there are some beautiful moments and dreadful quarters-of-an-hour. It's hard to form a strong opinion when listening to a recording -- I went with Solti and the Chicago Symphony, with Jones, Martin, and Talvela and my score of choice was a nice hardcover Broude -- because the magic is necessarily broken into pieces. I have never thought that Wagner comes off well outside the opera house, or even in the semi-staged opera house.

One thing I did find amusing, though, was that I kept thinking of the music of Arthur Sullivan. Wagner must have been a powerful influence on Sullivan, and the two share a surprisingly similar vocabulary (at least at this early stage in Wagner's career).

So, these constitute my first impressions of The Flying Dutchman. Like all serious music critics, I shall assign a final score using strict aesthetic critera.

(on a scale of 1-10)

Libretto -- 6. (Ridiculous, but so much so that it almost becomes endearing.)
Leitmotifs -- 10. (The ship's main theme would make a great snobby novelty horn for a Wagner-themed lowrider.)
Music -- 6/10. (Highly competent 'regular' music, superb storms.)
Anti-Semitism -- 0. (Unless you're counting strained 'wandering jew' analogies, in which case it might be a 1.)

Finale score: 22. Or 26. Or 27.


Blogger Daniel Wolf said...

Gibbon died in 1796, so he didn't see a second of the 19th century. The length of The Decline is misleading, his prose remains a model of efficency, but he simply had a lot of history to cover.

11:47 PM  
Blogger Trevor Murphy said...

Drat, I'm gonna fire my fact-checker. I guess I associate Gibbon with 19th century sprawl because of all the footnotes...the pages look like they're trying to reproduce by budding.

9:59 AM  
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