Opera Explained: WAGNER, R. - The Flying Dutchman
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Richard Wagner (1813-1883): The FlyingDutchman
The word 'opera' isLatin and means 'the works'; it represents a synthesis of all the other arts:drama, vocal and orchestral music, dance, light and design. Consequently, itdelivers an emotional impact which none of the others can match. The only oneof the arts whose origins can be precisely dated, it was 'invented' in Italy in1597 as part of the Renaissance - the rebirth of interest in classical values.
As an art form it is truly international, crossing all linguistic and culturalbarriers, and it is probably the only one whose audience continues to expand,not in spite of, but because of developments in entertainment technology.
From its earlyorigins in Italy opera spread across Europe, establishing individual anddistinctive schools in a number of countries. France had an early andlong-standing love affair with it - hence the term grand opera, referring to the massive five-act creationsthat graced the Paris Opera in the nineteenth century. Germany had an excellentschool from as early as Mozart's time, and opera perhaps reached its highestachievement with the mighty music dramas of Richard Wagner. Russia, GreatBritain, and the Americas have also made their contributions.
But in the popularimagination opera remains an Italian concept - and no wonder. From its earliestyears Italians dominated the art: Cavalli and Monteverdi were among the firstto establish its forms; there was a golden age, called the bel canto, at the beginning of thenineteenth century when Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini ruled supreme; GiuseppeVerdi was probably the most revered artist in history; and, for many, Puccinirepresents in every sense the last word in this beloved genre.
Although thetwentieth century has not been as lavishly endowed with opera composers, it canstill boast a few, including Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, and BenjaminBritten - and, maybe most significantly in the long run, those errantstep-children of opera, the Broadway musical and the Lloyd Webber spectacular.
The Flying Dutchman
Wagner is theEverest of opera. Viewed from the foothills, his towering masterpieces, withtheir lofty themes and sometimes extraordinary length, can seem to test theendurance of all but the fanatic. But this image is only apt in part. Hismelodic gifts, the power and majesty of his orchestral writing, and his abilityto relate excellent narratives, make him almost a figure of popular culture.
The thrilling opening to the film ApocalypseNow would be nothing without its accompanying 'Ride of theValkyries'; Bugs Bunny reached apotheosis through Tannhauser; and at one time no bride could be trusted towalk down the aisle unless accompanied by the 'Wedding March' from Lohengrin. Fortunately, there is onethoroughly approachable and fascinating way to explore the work of the greatestRomantic of them all, and that is through TheFlying Dutchman.
Wagner's firstthree operas were not particularly successful, but with The Flying Dutchman his career took off.
Like many other great artists, he wasted none of life's experiences suitablefor integration into his work. Fleeing from creditors and the law, he crossedthe North Sea from Germany towards England and was blown off course by afurious gale, ending up, temporarily, in a Norwegian fjord. The fury of thegale was recreated in the dramatic opening to TheFlying Dutchman's Overture, and the sailors' cries he had heardresounding off the walls of the fjords were re-echoed in the opera's openingscene.
Of course, it helpsto have a strikingly good story. The legend of the Dutch captain who,frustrated by his numerous attempts to round Cape Horn, makes a pact with theDevil and is condemned to sail the Seven Seas forever, is such a story. The'gimmick', if you like, is that every seven years he is allowed to come ashoreand try to find a woman who will be faithful to him - even unto death. Ifsuccessful, he will find eternal peace.
The musical scorecontains many pre-echoes of Wagner's later style, most especially in the use ofleitmotifs - leading themes, or signature tunes which identify people, events,or emotions, and which recur throughout the opera in different guises. So inthe first seconds of the Overture we hear different themes associated with theraging sea, the Dutchman, and Senta - the woman whose redeeming love will bringsalvation.
If The Flying Dutchman looks backstylistically and relies to some extent on the mannerisms of GermanRomanticism, it is no bad thing. The period of Lortzing, Schubert, and Weberwas one of superb melodic invention, and Wagner is their equal. But thiseminent work also looks forward to the deeper, more profound operas of Wagner'smature years: Tristan and Isolde, TheMastersingers of Nuremberg, and, above all, The Ring of the Nibelung. By introducingus to the master's style, some of his techniques (the famous leitmotifs amongthem), and some of the recurring themes of his dramaturgy ?¡the lonely idea1istagainst society, the redeeming power of a woman's love, the peace that onlydeath can bring - he prepares us for the ascent in his remarkable career, whichis one of the most satisfying journeys in all music.
Thomson Smilliebegan his career in the early days of Scottish Opera and has been artisticdirector of the Wexford International Festival, general manager of the OperaCompany of Boston, and general director of Kentucky Opera. He now makes acareer as a writer, speech-writer, and public speaker. He has a strong beliefthat people mature into a love of opera and travels the world encouraging alove of the art form. His other passions are travel, languages, andfriendships. He has written several other titles in the Naxos 'Opera Explained'series.
David Timsonstudied acting and singing at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He hasperformed in modern and classic plays through the UK and abroad, including Wild Honey for Alan Ayckbourn, Hamlet, The Man of Mode, and The Seagull. Among his many televisionappearances have been roles in Nelson 'sColumn and Swallows and Amazons. ForNaxos AudioBooks he has recorded, to date, three volumes of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, anddirected Twelfth Night as well asplaying Feste. On Naxos, he takes the part of the Narrator in Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale.