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Thomas Stewart's Dutchman

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Wagner, Der fliegende Holländer, Thomas Stewart, Gwyneth Jones, Bayreuther Festspiele, Karl Böhm
(re-released June 12, 2007)
When the distinguished American bass-baritone Thomas Stewart died last year, it was one of several signs that a golden age of opera singing had disappeared. Birgit Nilsson, Renata Tebaldi, Victoria de Los Angeles, and others all died in recent years, followed this year by Beverly Sills. Deutsche Grammophon has re-released a classic live recording of Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer from the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, spliced together from several performances in the summer of 1971, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Having been only two years old at the time, I missed that one and was happy indeed to have the chance to appreciate Stewart's voice in its heyday. The Dutchman's opening monologue as preserved here is electrifying, dark, and full of desperate terror, in spite of the sometimes less than ideal sound quality, complete with inelegant joining of spliced sections and prompter's whispers.

Stewart is also excellent in the duet with the splendid Gwyneth Jones -- who is still going strong in the new Alice in Wonderland in Munich, as reported by Alex Ross -- as a fragile and troubled Senta in Act II. Her entrance in Act II, as she stares dreamily at the picture of the Dutchman, seems lost, almost coming from her mind. There is nothing held back when Jones launches into the opening of the Dutchman's ballad, but that gorgeous piano legato is put to very good use throughout the recording. Karl Ridderbusch is a virile Daland, while Harald Ek's Steuermann is a little shouty. Sieglinde Wagner is a throaty nurse, and Hermin Esser's Erik has a rather heroic sound, with occasionally covered tone leading to some flatness. The Bayreuth Chorus gives a hearty rendition (yo-ho-ho, matey – or, rather, Johohoe) of the sailors' chorus that concludes the first act so memorably, while the woman's chorus in the second act has trouble staying together at times. The opposing choruses that end the second act are appropriately infernal.

The orchestra can be heard quite clearly, with only a few minor infelicities in the overture and opening scene as blemishes on an otherwise fine performance from the Bayreuth Orchestra. Karl Böhm's conducting is as forceful and authoritative as ever, with driven choruses in Act III, for example. The booklet is on the skimpy side, in keeping with this economically minded two-CD mini-set. With a scene-by-scene synopsis instead of a libretto and no liner notes, this would not be a good choice for one's only Dutchman, but it is a worthwhile addition as a historical supplement.

Deutsche Grammophon 00289 477 5673

Washingtonians can look forward to a production of Der fliegende Holländer from Washington National Opera this season (March 15 to April 10, 2008), with Alan Held set to make his debut in the title role. Jennifer Wilson, whom I recently heard as Brünnhilde in the La Fura dels Baus Die Walküre in Florence, will sing the role of Senta.

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