WAGNER, R.: Der Fliegende Hollander

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Richard Wagner (1813-1883): Der fliegende Holländer

A Romantische Oper in three acts, to the composer’s own libretto, based on Heinrich Heine’s Aus den Memoiren des Herrn von Schnabelewopski

The tempestuous opening bars of the overture to Der fliegende Holländer throw us immediately into the passionate story of love, anguish and self-sacrifice that is to be played out in this, the first opera of Wagner’s musical maturity. Der fliegende Holländer was composed largely in Paris, during an unhappy, impoverished period of the composer’s life, but the triumph in Dresden of Rienzi, Wagner’s immediately preceding opera, in October 1842 must have been influential in securing the first production, in the same theatre, of this supernatural nautical tale.

Following the somewhat muted success of the première of Der fliegende Holländer, which he himself conducted, Wagner spent time revising the opera, though he had already considerably adapted his original score before it was even staged. His initial conception was to present Der fliegende Holländer in one unbroken act, but shortly before the opening he reworked this into three separate acts, in which form it was customarily produced during the nineteenth century. More recently, many directors and conductors have returned to Wagner’s first ideas and given the opera without any break; both are now regularly produced, the present recording being the three-act version.

Among Wagner’s stage works, Der fliegende Holländer is the first great bridge between the Romantic operas of Weber, of whom he was an avid admirer, and his own Music Dramas, notably Tristan und Isolde and Der Ring des Nibelungen. Tellingly, it reveals his developing use of the leitmotif, in depicting characters, emotions and situations, which would be so significant in the creation of those later works. The most potent leitmotif, which returns repeatedly during the overture, is that of the Dutchman himself, who is fated to sail the seas until redeemed by the love of a faithful woman. Senta will herself make that sacrifice, and she relates the Dutchman’s haunting tale in her great second act ballad; at the climax of the third act she throws herself into the sea, finally to be seen embracing the Dutchman as his ship sinks beneath the merciless waves.

Der fliegende Holländer was the first of Wagner’s operas to be presented in London, at Drury Lane Theatre in 1870, and was seen at Covent Garden seven years later. Its first American production was in 1876 in Philadelphia, reaching the Metropolitan Opera, New York, when it opened the 1889 season. The new 1950 production, at a later performance of which this recording was made, opened on the second night of Rudolf Bing’s first season as the Met’s general manager and was the occasion of two notable house débuts, those of Hotter and Nilsson, and two rôle débuts there, those of Varnay and Svanholm.

In his autobiography 5000 Nights at the Opera Bing recalls that the Bulgarian soprano Ljuba Welitsch was his first choice for Senta, but she was unable to accept the opportunity; indeed, she never sang the rôle at the Met. Fortunately Astrid Varnay, who had earned such an excellent reputation since her first appearance there in 1941, was available and on this live recording conveys all the passion and commitment that a convincing Senta requires. Hans Hotter displays the nobility of the tortured Dutchman’s soul, unusual, and the more welcome, in his keen observance of the score’s detail. Svanholm is choice casting in a rôle that is often avoided by the world’s top heldentenors (Melchior, for example, never sang it on stage at all) and is splendidly forthright and focused; and Nilsson, lighter of timbre than many a Daland, contributes most effectively to this stellar gathering which, under the vivid direction of Fritz Reiner, is undeniably among the finest ever to have committed the opera to disc.

Der fliegende Holländer was first performed on 2nd January 1843 at the Königliches Sächsisches Hoftheater in Dresden.

Hans Hotter was the supreme Wagnerian bass-baritone of his generation, and also sang rôles by Mozart, Mussorgsky and Verdi. Born in Offenbach am Main in 1909, he studied in Munich, giving his first concert there in 1929. After his 1930 operatic début in Troppau, he sang in Prague, Hamburg and, most famously, Munich, where he remained for 35 years. Hotter appeared in two Strauss premières, Friedenstag in 1938, and Capriccio in 1942, the year he also first sang in Salzburg. In 1947 he was at Covent Garden with the Wiener Staatsoper, returning for eighteen seasons singing rôles including Wotan and Hans Sachs; Hotter appeared at the Met from 1950 to 1954 and first sang at Bayreuth in 1952. Long accomplished also as a lieder singer, he has more recently participated in performances of Lulu and Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder with continuing success.

Astrid Varnay was born in Stockholm in 1918; at an early age she moved with her parents to the United States, where she later studied singing. Varnay sang at Brooklyn Academy in 1937, but her sensational first Metropolitan performance, as Sieglinde (Naxos 8.110058-60), was in 1941; she appeared there during nineteen seasons, principally in Wagnerian rôles, including six performances as Senta. Varnay later sang in Chicago, San Francisco and South America and appeared in sixteen consecutive Bayreuth seasons, where she was Senta in 1955-6 and 1959. Varnay first sang at Covent Garden in 1948 and thereafter in many European cities, including Florence, Paris, Vienna and Milan; considered the most dramatically intense Isolde and Brünnhilde of her generation, she was a fine Lady Macbeth, Elektra, Marschallin and, later, Klytemnestra. In retirement Varnay moved to Munich, where she still lives.

Born in Västerås, Sweden in 1904, Set Svanholm originally trained as an organist and made his baritone début at the age of 25; his début as a tenor was in 1936, as Radames in Aïda, but he excelled in Wagner, particularly as Lohengrin, Parsifal, Siegmund and Tristan. Appearances in London, Salzburg, Berlin, Vienna, Bayreuth and La Scala preceded Svanholm’s 1946 début at the Met, where he sang for ten seasons; he appeared at Covent Garden from 1948 until 1957, displaying his robust, focused tenor to superb effect. In 1956 Svanholm was appointed director of the Royal Opera in Stockholm; he died in Sweden in 1964.

Sven Nilsson, too, was born in Sweden, in 1898; he studied in Stockholm, making his operatic début in 1930. As member of the Dresden Staatsoper (1930-1944), he sang at Covent Garden in 1936 and in the première of Strauss’s Daphne in 1938; he also appeared in Amsterdam, Brussels, Milan and Drottningholm. In 1946 Nilsson returned to Stockholm, singing there until his death in 1970. Nilsson assumed principally Wagnerian rôles, notably Daland, which he performed during his only Met season, Pogner and Gurnemanz; and also Sarastro, Osmin and Ochs.

Fritz Reiner, born in Budapest in 1888, studied under Bartók. He was Dresden Staatsoper’s musical director from 1914 to 1922, subsequently taking charge of the Cincinnati Symphony. From 1931 Reiner taught at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and was Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony from 1938 to 1948, scheduling performances at Covent Garden, La Scala, Vienna and South America into his energetic career. He later conducted at the Met and in Chicago, remembered for his wide musical interests, but principally for interpretations of the
Disc: 1
Der fliegende Hollander
1 Ouverture
2 Act I: Hojohe! Halloho!
3 Act I: Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer
4 Act I: Die Frist ist um
5 Act I: Wie oft in Meeres tiefsten Schlund
6 Act I: He! Holla! Steuermann!
7 Act I: Durch Sturm und bosen Wind verschlagen
8 Act I: Wie? Hort' Ich recht? Meine Tochter sein We
9 Act I: Sudwind! Sudwind!
10 Act I: Mit Gewitter und Sturm
11 Act II: Summ und brumm, du gutes Radchen
12 Act II: Du boses Kind
13 Act II: Johohoe! Traft ihr das Schiff im Meere an
14 Act II: Senta! Senta! Willst du mich verderben?
15 Act II: Bleib, Senta! Bleib nur einen Augenblick!
Disc: 2
Der fliegende Hollander
1 Act II: Senta! Lass dir vertraun
2 Act II: Mein Kind, du siehst mich auf der Schwelle
3 Act II: Mogst du, mein Kind, den fremden Mann will
4 Act II: Wie aus der Ferne langst vergang 'ner Zeit
5 Act II: Wirst du des Vaters Wahl nicht schelten?
6 Act II: Verzeiht! Mein Volk halt drauBen sich nich
7 Act II: Orchestral Interlude
8 Act III: Steuermann, lass die Wacht!
9 Act III: Johohohe! Johohohe! Hoe! Hoe!
10 Act III: Was musst' ich horen
11 Act III: Willst jenes Tags du nicht dich mehr ents
12 Act III: Verloren! Ach, verloren!
13 Act III: Erfahre das Geschick, vor dem ich dich be
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