Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Der fliegende Holländer
George London (baritone) – Holländer
Leonie Rysanek (soprano) – Senta
Giorgio Tozzi (bass) – Daland
Karl Liebl (tenor) – Erik
Richard Lewis (tenor) – Steuermann
Rosalind Elias (mezzo-soprano) – Mary
Orchestra & Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Antal Dorati
Rec. 1960, Walthamstow Town Hall, London
HDTT 12220 [3 CDs: 143:07]
Here an old and much revered friend returns in new garb – and truly becoming it is. Issued in the early 1960s by RCA – and my first encounter with it was a highlights LP that became a precious jewel in my collection – it was later transferred to Decca. When the CD era began I in due time acquired the complete opera, which quickly became my preferred recording – though it happened that I sometimes chose the more modern Solti version, also on Decca. Produced in the “Living Stereo” series by legendary producer Richard Mohr and engineer Lewis Layton, it was technically a front-runner, comparable to Decca’s spectacular recordings produced by John Culshaw at about the same time, but there was a fly in the ointment, as restorer John H Haley points out in the notes to the present issue: the pitch variations. They were as wide as approximately 3%, which is more than a quarter tone. Haley discusses the reasons for these variations in his interesting notes, and I refer readers to them. Suffice it to say that he has laboriously corrected them manually, which naturally is a time-consuming procedure. In the run he has also cleaned up audible splice points, corrected certain level imbalances and removed extra-musical noises. The outcome of all this is that we now can enjoy the recording as it was intended 60+ years ago and what those present heard in Walthamstow Town Hall during the recording sessions – even though they got the music in bits and pieces.
Antal Dorati is without doubt one of the most recorded in the history of recorded music, though he set down little opera – the Philips series of Haydn operas, Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and Strauss’s Die Ägyptische Helena – and of Wagner a couple of discs with orchestral excerpts. Generally speaking, he wasn’t a man of the opera house – though I once heard him in a concert performance of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle – but the way he moulds the phrases in the overture and conjures up Wagner’s visions of the roaring North Sea, leaves us in no doubt that here is a conductor who has the full measure of the young Wagner’s romantic idiom. The crystal clear but integrated recording allows us to hear every orchestral detail, and at the same time be embedded in the homogenous sound of the Covent Garden Orchestra. The playing is marvellous, and I don’t believe that Dorati had conducted them very often, maybe never, before. The chorus, whether we hear the male voices of the sailors or the female ones in the spinning scene or the full chorus, are also on their toes for their temporary maestro – and this is one of the great choral operas.
Maestro Dorati isn’t let down by his soloists either, quite the contrary. The cast was entirely made up of singers who had recently worked together in this opera at the Metropolitan Opera, and that certainly pays dividends. Far from pushing together six individuals, being flown in from various directions and sometimes even popping in individually and singing duets with pre-recorded tapes – this happened not infrequently in those “good old days” – we hear an integrated ensemble with recent stage experience. This is the closest we can get to a live experience, but without the drawbacks of the live event: stage noises, bad balance, audience noises, false entries. Moreover, they were all in excellent form. Some commentators in the past have stated that George London’s upcoming voice problem – a paralyzed vocal cord – can be anticipated here. However, he turned forty during 1960, and it was not until the 1963/64 season the problem went acute and eventually led to his ending his career at age 46. And even earlier than 1960 there was a certain gruffness in his tone, which is not unbecoming for a seafarer like the Dutchman. His opening monologue, initially fairly distant, is truly magnificent, when he expresses both his sorrow and his anger, with such feeling and inwardness that it is difficult to imagine it better sung. Hans Hotter may be in the same division, but Norman Bailey on the Solti recording, for all his virtues, can’t measure up with him, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, for all his verbal acuity, lacks the black weightiness of tone, his rather tenoral baritone far too light compared to London’s genuine bass-baritone. This is of course not an isolated phenomenon in the monologue but permeates the whole performance. Leonie Rysanek’s Senta is also superb. In fact, I don’t believe I have heard her in better shape anywhere. She is steady, her tone is brilliant, and she has almost incredible strength. Her ballad is, as it should be, a highlight and overall she is totally involved.
The rest of the cast have less to do, but Giorgio Tozzi is one of the best Dalands on disc: warm, rounded tone and he is uncommonly youthful. Whether this is a drawback is a moot point. Erik’s role is rather ungrateful, but Karl Liebl does what he can. His is not the most ingratiating of tenor voices but he is an able singer and actor. His recorded output is meagre. Besides this Holländer he took part in an extended compact version of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg for Concert Hall some years earlier, where he was a very likeable Walther von Stoltzing. He may be best remembered for a performance of Tristan und Isolde at the Metropolitan in New York in 1959, where Birgit Nilsson sang opposite three tenors, one in each act. The other two were Ramon Vinay and Albert da Costa. Richard Lewis is a good Steuermann and Rosalind Elias is classy casting as Mary.
All in all, this newly refurbished Holländer can now, despite being made over 60 years ago, make claims to be the recommended version of this oft-recorded opera.