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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
The Flying Dutchman

John Tomlinson (bass – The Dutchman); Eric Halfvarson (bass - Daland); Nina Stemme (soprano – Senta); Kim Begley (tenor - Eric); Patricia Bardon (mezzo-soprano – Mary)
The Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra/David Parry
Rec. Blackheath Halls, London, 6-11 January 2004. DDD
CHANDOS OPERA IN ENGLISH CHAN 3119(2) [64.36 + 77.27]

The Chandos ‘Opera in English’ series, supported by the Peter Moores Foundation, adds another Wagner work to its burgeoning collection – now approaching seventy titles in total. Composers represented so far, whilst ranging from Handel to Gounod, seem to concentrate on Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Bizet, Donizetti and Janáček, so it is good to see more Wagner included. The other notable Wagner work already in the catalogue is the Goodall Ring cycle, which was released to critical acclaim in 2001.

With so many excellent versions of The Flying Dutchman on the market – featuring conductors such as Klemperer, Levine, von Karajan, Dohnanyi, Böhm, Sinopoli and Barenboim, and Hans Hotter and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing the title role - it is a formidable task to bring out one that compares favourably. This version arrives with the head-start of being different – in English rather than German - and therefore appealing to a particular market. Yet it is in any case able to tackle the competition head-on, with an excellent cast, in what turns out to be an all-round top production.

It is immediately apparent from the emotionally charged Overture that David Parry has got the work under his skin, with the brilliant opening at once capturing the nervous tension in what is an exuberant and passionate performance. Wild, rushing, fevered, suitably tempestuous, with aptly coarse brass, the overture is commensurate with, and therefore a good foretaste of, the rest of the work. It is a gripping, on-edge, and well-paced performance, and where the sections of lyrical beauty break in, breath-takingly lush and romantic.

Eric Halfvarson plays Daland capably, Nina Stemme is an effectively frantic and unbridled Senta, Kim Begley copes excellently with the rather difficult role of the hopeless and vaguely pathetic Eric, and Patricia Bardon is a proficient Mary. John Tomlinson is fantastic as a suitably agonised Dutchman – from his very first words despair and wretchedness shine through. His black, dark, harsh tone is perfect for this role, and excellent enunciation is a definite bonus. Some Dutchmen are untouchable, unrivalled - Willard White in the 1997 ENO production, conducted by Paul Daniel, epitomised the Dutchman role for me - but John Tomlinson here comes close.

I have very few quibbles with this performance. One of these is that Peter Wedd, the Steersman, has a voice more suited to Italian opera than to Wagner, and the touching Steersman’s song comes across as rather wet and effeminate. In places I would like to hear even more throbbing passion, as even this does not quite reach the heights of wild abandon that I look for in a recording. One feels that very occasionally the performance is slightly in need of propulsion. The Italianate Wedd apart, the cast has been extremely well chosen, and the standard of singing is outstanding. The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Geoffrey Mitchell Choir are similarly superb.

Ever the purist, I cannot claim to be a fan of opera in English. Firstly, what’s wrong with reading the libretto beforehand, and secondly, it is usually the case that opera in English is as unintelligible as in its original language! But I can appreciate the demand for it, and here, one really can hear the words – a tremendous achievement, rendering this a very valuable addition to the Chandos series, and demonstrating how Chandos have hit the mark with their typical efficacy. I thus have no hesitation in saying that this brilliant production is one that I can heartily recommend if you don’t mind – or would prefer – the work in English rather than the original German!

Em Marshall

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