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Minkowski's Sons of Meyerbeer: Wagner & Dietsch

A Double Bill of Flying Dutchmen

While in Vienna, do as the Viennese and attend concerts. At least that’s the cliché about the allegedly culture-loving town, and I’m not above it. After tremendous Verdi at the Konzerthaus (Requiem, Noseda), I was in for another anniversary-boy in the same venue. This time Wagner, but with a two-hour twist. When Wagner wrote the libretto for his Flying Dutchman, inspired by accounts and variants of the story he found in Heinrich Heine (Reisebilder, Memoirs of Mr. von Schabelewopski), Wilhelm Hauff (Das Gespensterschiff), and Walter Scott (The Pirate), he offered the French version (Heine helped to make the French more idiomatic) to the Paris opera. They said “merci”, gave him 500 Francs for the draft (which Wagner could not afford not to take), and gave it to Paul Foucher and Henri Révoil for a good working over… then asked their chorus-master and conductor Pierre-Louis Dietsch to turn it into an opera (which they then claimed was not based on Wagner’s libretto after all). Dietsch, whom his student Fauré called “by nature frigid, methodical, but reactionary in mind” and who would go on to alienate Wagner and Verdi by ineptly conducting their Tannhäuser, resp. Les vêpres siciliennes, did as was demanded and came up with Le vaisseau fantôme, ou Le maudit des mers.

Le vaisseau fantôme

Precisely that Phantom Ship (with a dash of Captain Marryat’s book of the same name added to the libretto) is what Marc Minkowski brought to the Konzerthaus… as the substantial overture to Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, performed with just 90 minutes between the two works. The overture of the Anton Reicha-student is great fun and extremely charming—if “charming” didn’t have that damnation-with-faint-praise connotation. The chorus members were smiling and softly bopping their heads to the catchy rhythms as the music rippled forth, sounding a little like Mendelssohn here and a something like Weber there. And a good deal like “Offenbach!”, as fellow attendee composer Kai Nieminen animatedly whispered to me.

But the excitement of the overture dissipates soon, and the music of most of the first and the faintly Wagnerian (which to say: Meyerbeerian) second scene (act 1) isn’t quite so good as to instill willing alertness in listeners who don’t have either readily available. The two exceptions are a scene when the Scriften character (MC of the Swedish crew) and his sailors let it rip in their choral outing: Minkowski is in his element here, and tears through the music with his trademark gusto… ditto the choral finale of the first act. Elsewhere: longueurs. “The harmonies are so dull…” groans Nieminen, “but she is very good!”

“She” is Sally Matthews, and apart from singing her French part impeccably, there’s also a grain of endearing salt in her sultry Minna. It’s the third scene (act 2) that stimulated the senses a bit more and, becoming a veritable Minna-tour de force, showed off Sally Matthews the most. Her part, and her performance, left little room for others to shine, but Eric Cutler, imposing in every way as Éric, did so anyway. Ugo Rabec’s Barlow displayed a very natural French (not surprising for a French bass); Russel Braun occasionally swallowed his words, but was particularly strong in his second act Air.

Who’s Who

To alleviate confusion (perhaps to prepare you for the upcoming recording of Le vaisseau fantôme) here’s a list of the characters as they correspond (or don’t) in these two operas. The names in parentheses note the changes from the original version of Wagner’s Dutchman (performed on this occasion) to the final version.

Norway (Scotland) = Shetland
Senta = Minna
Flying Dutchman =Troïl, a.k.a. Waldemar, here Swedish
Daland (Donald) = Barlow
Mary = cut
Erik (Georg) = That’s complicated…

Erik seems split up into two characters: Magnus, Minna’s fiancé, a sailor whose Father was killed by Troïl in a sub-plot that no one cares about and which affects nothing. And—confusingly—Éric, a hunter, who happens to be her gay best friend who loves telling ghost stories with the gals. Magnus is a character, alright. Being turned down by Minna, after initial promise, he goes off to a monastery-seminary, apparently taking the one-day crash course to priesthood, so that he is at hand to masochistically conduct the wedding ceremony between Minna and Troïl-Waldemar himself, wishing her the best—all magnanimity—while mentioning along the way how his wounds are hardly worth mentioning… these deep, gashing wounds she left with him… not worth mentioning hardly at all, they aren’t!

A Senta/Minna Interlude

What fascinates us about this woman who, promised to another, indulges in her daydreams against all perceived reality? She might be a very young woman, and her obsession akin to a teenage fantasy: a pop- or movie star (or royalty) that has graced her walls and closets on posters since grade school. And even after meeting her husband-to-be, she has only taken down the bigger of these posters… a newspaper clipping—a particularly striking portrait—she still keeps in her wallet, even though it’s become rather worn and tattered over the years. It’s not hard to imagine such a teen, ready and willing to throw herself at the man of her hitherto impotent dreams… with grim determination and physical tenacity. She may not find redemption in this, but we’d know why she sought it.

But Senta need not be the smitten teen. Imagine a woman more mature, with a good—certainly above average—matrimonial prospect at hand. And yet a meeting with a stranger…perhaps imagined, perhaps fleeting—a man onto whom she projects her desires but whom she cannot possibly know well—convinces her to sacrifice all and leave convention, security, home, and familiarity behind. (It doesn’t even matter that her father, weirdly, pushes her along that way.) We would find this woman more shocking and more daring than the deluded teenager. We would find poor Erik more pitiful for it, and perhaps we fantasize ourselves what the redemption—the perfect happiness—might be like… the kind that would justify such a move. All assuming that jumping off a cliff is only symbolism or in any case just the beginning.

This proximity of fidelity and betrayal, redemption and damnation, virtue and vice continues to make Senta a fascinating character, with plenty of room for directors to explore the strong overtones of contemporary dilemmas and timeless qualities.

Music to be Listened To

With just enough time for a Melange and Sacherwürstel with Kren at the Café Schwarzenberg (across the Beethovenplatz and Schubertring) between operas, the Konzerthaus beckoned again, now with Wagner’s 1841 version of the Flying Dutchman. Starting with the great little sharpness from the aggressive strings in the overture, this performance had a wild, urging quality. But it wasn’t primarily the interpretative quality that impressed. In direct comparison to Dietsch, it was the musical quality. Here, from the first note to the last, was music composed to be heard. It may sound odd, from today’s perspective of reverent concert-attendance and righteously shushing even minor noise-makers into submission, but most music was not composed to be heard… and Dietsch’s music certainly belongs to that category.

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Flying Dutchman,
B.Weil / Capella Coloniensis
F-J.Selig, A.Weber et al.

available at Amazon
J.Haydn, London Symphonies
(Live at the Konzerthaus),
M.Minkowski, Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble

The overture, yes, may have been expected to be listened to. But the whole opera was conceived as an overture itself, to a longer ballet. People would have talked throughout the acts; especially the first. The richer patrons would have amused themselves with their special friends from the corps de ballet in their boxes. It’s where Wagner would later get in trouble, because he didn’t know (or didn’t care) about these non-listening conventions, and put the ballet in Tannhäuser in the wrong part, wreaking havoc on the patrons’ paramouratic social itinerary. But already in Riga he had started forcing the focus on the music, with dimmed lights (the Riga house was naturally badly lit, which gave him the idea) and locking the doors. That’s what makes Wagner so unique, that he absolutely demanded to be listened to and that he wrote music that can back this demand up. Understanding that brings us closer to appreciating Wagner and also closer towards appreciating new ways of presenting pre-Wagner operas that ought not be treated, indiscriminately and across the board, as if they were Parsifal.

Because Vienna has a different attitude towards swastikas, the Dutchman was Evgeny Nikitin, whose performance pointed out—musically, understatedly—what a loss his absence means for Bayreuth’s floundering Dutchman production. In wonderfully articulated voice, powerfully purling, his delivery was accentuated and nuanced, and his voice lavishly full of tone. Only text—diction and possibly comprehension—can be improved upon.

Bernard Richter’s Steuermann’s ballad was more impressive than his work as Magnus, but his delivery of the text was at times oddly incongruent. Marie-Ange Tadorovitch was a reedy, not particularly memorable Mary; Ingela Brimberg’s Senta cut glass to the last, with her electric, clear voice—nearly strident, definitely loud, and perhaps a little spent. Eric Cutler, on double duty, continued to impress with a splendid Erik/Georg—one you have to take seriously, vocally and dramatically (even in a concert performance), which helps the character. If this Dutchman was recorded, too, it should be a valuable addition to the discography—as only the second 1841 Dutchman since Bruno Weil’s.

(George Loomis caught the show in its second outing at Versailles; the first performance in Grenoble has been recorded and will be issued on CD.)