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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Der fliegende Holländer (1843) [139.00]
Franz Grundheber (baritone) - Dutchman; Hildegard Behrens (soprano) - Senta; Raimo Sirkiä (tenor) - Erik; Matti Salminen (bass) - Daland; Jorma Silvasti (tenor) - Steersman; Anita Välkki (mezzo) - Mary)
Savonlinna Festival Chorus and Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
rec. Olavilinna Castle, Savonlinna Festival, Finland, 1989
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 647608 [139.00]

It is a truism to observe that the wind and the sea suffuse Wagner’s score for The flying Dutchman, but this production makes a real point of it. At the very beginning we are presented with a filmed seascape overlaid across the picture which persistently returns throughout, often obscuring the action on-stage. We also are shown still images of the principal characters, which again return frequently, and a period print of the Dutchman’s ship which is projected onto the screen at various points. These continual televisual effects - which clearly derive from the video director Aarno Cronvall and not from the original staging - come to be annoying, because they are so often unnecessary. Despite this, the production is a good one which ingeniously solves the problems caused by Wagner’s massively complicated stage requirements.
In 1853 Wagner wrote a long article giving performers instructions on the manner in which he expected Der fliegende Holländer to be acted. This valuable essay makes a number of points which remain valid today. In particular Wagner lays emphasis on the way in which Senta and the Dutchman first meet each other in Act Two, and the extreme stillness which he requires of both characters as they are transfixed by the sight of each other - a stillness which is closely reflected in the music at that point. In many modern productions the two characters wander around all over the place, and the dramatic impact of the moment is completely dissipated. Here producer Ilkka Bäckman takes Wagner’s stipulations seriously, and with Hildegard Behrens and Franz Grundheber’s faces seen in close-up one realises just how right this is. Nor is this the only place where the production has been influenced by Wagner’s precisely calculated notes; the build-up to the appearance of the Dutchman’s crew in the opening scene of Act Three is hair-raising when it is staged like this. Erik’s cavatina has all the passion and heartbreak that Wagner wanted. Incidentally when reviewing another DVD last year (see below), I commented adversely on the fact that that production omitted the cadenza for the tenor at the end of that cavatina. Wagner in fact suggests this cut in his article if the tenor is unable to convey the expression required; but when he came to revise the score some ten years later, adding a new ending to the overture and the opera itself, he allowed the cadenza to stand. It is surprising that so many modern productions, while reverting to Wagner’s originally contrived one-act scheme, adhere to his original versions of the ending; one should surely give priority to the composer’s second thoughts, just as he toned down the heavy brass writing in places to allow the singers to come across better.
Presumably because of difficulties with scene changes during a staging in the courtyard of Olavilinna Castle, Leif Segerstam here gives us Wagner’s full close to Act One, beginning Act Two with an orchestral reprise of the sailor’s chorus. This works well and does not break continuity too much, and is after all the manner in which the opera was performed during Wagner’s lifetime. Segerstam does however connect the Second and Third Acts in the ‘modern’ fashion, although the audience interrupts the music with unwanted applause here … and at the end of the first section of the love duet. We are given pretty realistic sets and costumes, with two ships clearly visible during the First and Third Acts, spinning wheels in the Second, and so on, within the parameters of what is practicable. There is no proscenium curtain, so the chorus at the beginning of each Act stand motionless on the stage, erupting into sudden movement at the points when one would expect the curtain to rise; this works well.
The singing is on the whole something pretty special. Hildegard Behrens is here seen at the peak of her powers; her dramatic involvement is as always consummate, and she sings well after a momentary huskiness in her opening phrase is overcome. Franz Grundheber is a solid Dutchman, lacking sometimes the sense of inner stillness that one would like - for example in the prayer during his opening monologue - but willing to sing quietly when required, as at the beginning of the love duet. It must have been difficult to judge audibility in the open air of the echoing courtyard auditorium. Raimo Sirkiä is a properly heroic Erik, who brings the right note of horror to his dream and the final scene. Matti Salminen is a tower of strength as Daland, with a sense of his own self-importance which is proof against his being regarded as a purely comic character. The young Jorma Silvasti is a plangent Steersman, and only Anita Välkki comes close to letting the side down. She was a notable Brünnhilde (and Third Norn in Solti’s Ring) in the 1960s, but twenty years later her voice sounds overly matronly, and she has to resort to a sort of Sprechstimme in her line before Senta begins her ballad.
Leif Segerstam, in the clearly problematic and very resonant acoustic, opts for a slow traversal of the score which nevertheless avoids ponderousness and allows every detail to register. The orchestra plays nobly for him, despite a minor blip from the horns at the beginning of Erik’s dream. He is not afraid to allow Wagner’s frequent dramatic silences their full measure, and obtains superb results also from the excellent chorus, although the competing male choirs in the opening scene of Act Three are more or less totally submerged by the raging orchestral maelstrom that surrounds them. Elsewhere the balance is well judged and captured by the recording engineers.
There is surprisingly little available competition for this opera on DVD. The current catalogue lists the Netherlands Opera’s radically modernised production, which I reviewed with limited enthusiasm last year; and a Bayreuth production which portrays the whole plot as a dream of Senta’s, and employs Wagner’s original ending for both overture and opera. The only available production which is free of such directorial conceits is a filmed version conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch, which achieves graphic realism in the production but similarly uses Wagner’s original truncated ending. This adds a further gratuitous cut in the opening scene of Act Three. So that means that if you want a production which sticks closely to Wagner’s original carefully conceived scenario, this is your only option. It is not a bad one, and the balance between voices and orchestra is far more realistic and satisfactory than in the Sawallisch film. One would welcome the re-release of the BBC television production of the early 1970s, with Gwyneth Jones and Norman Bailey in the leading roles, which I recall with affection. The DVD comes in a cardboard sleeve with minimal documentation, and there are no extras. The subtitles are thankfully large and easily readable.
Paul Corfield Godfrey

See also review of earlier release by Anne Ozorio