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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Der Fliegende Holländer (1841 version)
Evgeny Nikitin – Holländer (baritone)
Ingela Brimberg – Senta (soprano)
Eric Cutler – Georg (tenor)
Mika Kares – Donald (bass)
Bernard Richter – Steersman (tenor)
Helen Schneidermann – Mary (mezzo)
Pierre-Louis DIETSCH (1808-1865)
Le Vaisseau Fantôme ou Le Maudit des Mers (1842)
Russell Braun – Troïl (baritone)
Sally Matthews – Minna (soprano)
Bernard Richter – Magnus (tenor)
Ugo Rabec – Barlow (baritone)
Eric Cutler – Éric (tenor)
Mika Kares – Scriften (bass)
Eesti Filharmoonia Kammerkoor
Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble/Marc Minkowski
rec. May 2013, MC2: Grenoble (France)
NAÏVE V5349 [4 CDs: 57:12 + 72:37 + 70:03 + 35:18]

When Wagner arrived in Paris in 1839, his primary aim was to conquer the stage of the mighty Opéra, the principal ambition of every 19th Century opera composer. It was in this context and to this end that he composed Der Fliegende Holländer, but the new director of the Opéra made it pretty plain to him that he would not accept Wagner’s drama. In 1841, Wagner sold the idea of the story - not the opera itself - to the Opéra, as he was desperate for funds. The Opéra then entrusted the tale to two of their librettists who turned it into Le Vaisseau Fantôme and gave it to Pierre-Louis Dietsch to set to music. Hence we have two versions of the same story which premiered in different cities within just a few weeks of each other: Dietsch’s premiered in Paris on 9 November 1842, and Wagner’s premiered in Dresden on 2 January 1843.

Marc Minkowski had the brilliant idea of uniting the two works for his contribution to the Wagner centenary celebrations. It’s an exceptionally welcome set for historical reasons, not just because it gives us Dietsch’s opera for what must be its first recording, but also because we get Wagner’s original thoughts on the Dutchman, which include quite a few surprises for anyone who feels they know the score. Most obviously, both the overture and the very final scene are shorn of their redemptive endings and end rather abruptly. On top of this, Les Musiciens du Louvre play on period instruments giving an interesting tang to the sound.

All very interesting, but what’s it like musically? Rather unexciting, I’m sorry to report. To start with Holländer, I found that the period instruments made really very little difference to my understanding of the piece. I thought that the gut strings would affect the flavour of the music a lot, but in fact it was the winds that made the biggest impression on me. The storm music passes for not very much, but the first appearance of Senta’s theme sounds unusually sweet and appealing. It’s the other less assertive, more feminine aspects of the score that tend to come off better, such as the hushed choruses that end Senta’s ballad, and the finest moment in the whole work arrives with Wie aus der Ferne. Here, partly thanks to the singers, but also to a large degree thanks to Minkowski’s direction of his instrumentalists, I felt that the set got right to the very heart of the interior dialogue that characterises this music. Here are two souls that are crying out for one another in the most intimate manner, a prayer that calls out to whatever and whoever will listen.

Elsewhere, the rest of the performance struck me as really rather slight. The biggest problem here is Nikitin’s Dutchman. His interpretation, either by design or by default, comes across as much too lightweight, missing much of the character’s scale and depth. He finds a little bit by the time of the final scene, but his opening monologue passes for almost nothing, and I found that the tragic grandeur of the role was almost entirely absent. Mika Kares makes a colourful contrast as Daland, and his duet with the Dutchman in Act 1 is very successful. There is a sweet-voiced Steersman from Bernard Richter, more of whom below. The pick of the men is Eric Cutler whose fundamentally light voice grows into the part after a rather underpowered start. Ingela Brimberg also sounds rather light for Senta, and she struggles up to her top notes in the final act. That said, she sings most of the role with success and a rather chilly colour to the voice that tends to work fairly well.

What of the other Dutchman? Well, it’s interesting, but only because you know Wagner’s version of the tale. It’s fun to chart the parallels and differences of the story, but beyond that you get the definite impression that the Opéra backed the wrong horse. The overture is of similar structure to Wagner’s: a storm theme and a more lyrical "love theme", followed by a more perky major-key section. It's undoubtedly a pale shadow of Wagner's, though: the storm music is polite and conventional in comparison with Wagner's sea salt that whips into your face, while the love music is pleasant but forgettable. That rather sets the tone for the whole work: lots of pleasing melodies that, alas, disappear as soon as you've heard them. There are some good things: the opening chorus is elegant if un-extraordinary, and Magnus and Minna's not-quite-love duet is attractive, if hardly oozing frustrated passion. Minna's main Act 1 aria is fairly impressive. It carries with it some attractive instrumental obbligati, too, and the ensemble that ends Act 1 is diverting. Minna's ballad, however, is a definite let-down, especially in comparison with Senta's equivalent, sounding rather dry and polite. When the orchestral storm actually breaks in Act 1 it carries little conviction, and would ruffle few feathers, never mind threaten a ship. Most damagingly, the final "apotheosis", if you can call it that, is, frankly, pretty lame.

As for the performances, Sally Matthews makes fairly heavy weather of the opening ballad but she grows into an impressive account of her first act aria and cabaletta, especially in the closing roulades. Russell Braun also makes a very impressive figure as Troïl (the Dutchman). His first address to Minna, full of lyrical ardour, is sung with beautiful - and very French - tone that suits it brilliantly, and he summons up the appropriate seriousness required for his big Act 2 aria. Bernard Richter also conjures up a very French sound for the role of Magnus, and he carries himself off very well in the Act 1 duet with Minna, tossing off some absurdly unnecessary high notes with impressive aplomb. He also does a good job as the tortured priest of the final act. Ugo Rabec makes as much as he can out of the role of Barlow, Minna's father, who is giving some pleasingly bluff music to accompany his dreams of his daughter's marriage.

Still, I return to my original view that, while this set is a good idea, it’s primarily valuable for historical reasons. Minkowski’s singers are solid without being brilliant, and the period instruments don’t add that much to the reading of Holländer. It’s put under even more pressure by the good competition there is out there for Holländer, not least from Klemperer, Janowski and, especially, Sinopoli. Furthermore, there is little in Le Vaisseau Fantôme that would make me return to it much. So, despite the noble intentions, I suspect that this set is principally for the historically minded.

Simon Thompson