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Richard WAGNER (1860-1911)
Der fliegende Holländer

Hildegard Behrens - Senta
Matti Salminen - Daland
Franz Grundheber - The Dutchman
Riamo Sirkiä - Erik
Anita Välkki - Mary
Jorma Silvastri - Steersman
Ilkka Bäckmann - Director
Savonlinna Opera Festival Orchestra and Chorus/Leif Segerstam
Savonlinna Opera Festival 1989
DVD-9 Region: 2,3,4.5.6


When the soprano Aino Ackté visited the castle at Olavinlinna nearly a hundred years ago, she was struck by its romantic setting on an outcrop of rocks, surrounded by ocean. To this day the Savonlinna Opera Festival is held in the courtyard of the fortified medieval castle. An atmospheric venue indeed, for Der fliegende Holländer, an opera which has become a Savonlinna speciality, performed at nearly every festival. This DVD is a live recording of the celebrated Behrens/Grundheber/Salminen performance of 1989, conducted by Leif Segerstam, directed by Ilkka Bäckmann, a Savonlinna perennial. It was directed for video by Aarno Cronvall.

The simplicity of this film reflects the Savonlinna ethos. It is unpretentious, almost to the point of seeming superficially casual. Musically and artistically, however, the standards are very high indeed. The film starts with a panorama of the castle, from the sky, panning down to the sea surface, which is actually quite calm, rather than the storm-tossed maelstrom suggested in the music. But that's a minor quibble. The film's regular use of the image of the sea takes on a surreal, timeless quality, an unchanging backdrop to overtures and preludes. On second and third viewings, it has an almost hypnotic effect, holding the visual narrative together. Segerstam gets very focused playing from the orchestra, underlining the quintessential Wagner ebb and flow of dramatic and lyrical. It's an interesting irony to see scenes set on ships inside a building surrounded by the sea

The maritime choreography of the Norwegian crew will have been done more stylishly many times, but the slightly bedraggled chorus here had the unassuming look of real workmen. Their singing was good not Covent Garden chorus standards but appropriately rough and ready. Matti Salminen as Daland, barks out orders to his seamen but beneath the surface, he's a hapless dreamer, thinking that good times come easy. Wagner wrote the role of Steersman as a contrast: the Steersman does nothing but sleep and dream, even when a storm crashes around him while he's supposed to be on watch. Even when a ghostly ship moors alongside, he won't give up his dreams. In this production the dynamic between the two is strong. Salminen plays Daland as a well rounded character, a businessman with an eye for the main chance his sidelong glances, eyes narrowing to slits, may give the appearance of a canny bargainer, but he's transparent. Jorma Silvastri, as the Steersman, is so young and fresh looking here that the makeup and beard he wears for the character also seem an attempt to make him appear fiercer than he really is. It's quite engaging.

In masterly contrast to both of them is the Dutchman himself. He has no illusions. He's desperate to find a woman who can break the curse upon him. In the long dialogue between Daland and the Dutchman, Franz Grundheber is imperturbable. The two burly basses square off, Daland wrapping himself in the Dutchman's plastic cloak as if it were a treasure. The treasure in the chest, incidentally, really does look tacky on film perhaps it's symbolic, but the audience would not have been able to see it close up, as we do on film.

Act Two opens with the female chorus. They are spinning, using authentic looking spinning machines. Their clothes are also home-spun, and vegetable dyed, a charming detail. The camera panned on individual members of the chorus and not just the conventionally pretty ones, either, but on a woman with a glorious smile such a contrast to the neurotic Senta. The women were robust looking, and active, again in contrast to the wan heroine, doing nothing but dream of the legend. Anita Vällki sang a very distinctive Mary. Dressed in sophisticated velvet and exquisitely maquillée, her striking looks and voice provided yet another contrast to Senta. It was disconcerting to see Hildegard Behrens as Senta, her face tense and etched with anxiety, less childishly youthful than Salminen as her father. Perhaps too, that is a telling detail about the dynamics of the plot. Nonetheless, the moment Behrens started to sing, all was transformed. Her voice is glorious, full of passion and intensity, rich and mysterious. The scene in which she and the Dutchman lock eyes on each other is so rapt with fervour that the plot line is totally believable.

Erik the huntsman, Raimo Sirkiä, doesn't stand a chance. Grundheber's acting may seem impassive, but his voice conveys his heartbreak and disappointment. Nonetheless, Senta has chosen her dream and leaps over the parapet to demonstrate her loyalty unto death. Interestingly, while Wagner suggested the music end with an image of Senta and the Dutchman together, this film shows those left behind, like Erik and Mary, looking stunned.

The film has a general "home made" feel, with very basic titles and text. Camera shots are held for a long time and somewhat repetitive. The ungroomed, homely chorus members (of both sexes) would never do at the Met. Nonetheless, I felt this was an advantage. Slick and flashy means little when singing is as good as this. The down to earth honesty of the production is refreshing, putting all emphasis unselfconsciously on the music. The live audience, spared from the longueurs of the film, must have had a memorable evening, which thanks to this release, we, too, can enjoy.

Anne Ozorio

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