Just a month shy of Richard Wagner’s 200th birthday, the Boston Lyric Opera is presenting Der Fliegender Holländer in a version of the opera that has not yet been heard on this side of the Atlantic, the 1841 edition. It is an excellent choice to give this opera in an anniversary production—this version of Wagner’s first adult work was forged in the most trying part of the composer’s life, the moment when his genius began to emerge hand in hand with his hatred.
BLO’s supertitled production in German runs from April 26th to May 5th. [weblink here]
It was only two years earlier, in 1839, that Wagner was an up and coming composer and musical director of the town theater in provincial Riga where he, his wife Minna and their shaggy white Newfoundland Dog Robber lived a simple life. Indeed, it is said that when the young composer walked to rehearsals in Riga his dog would accompany him and go for a swim in the city’s canals. However, Wagner was building up debts with the town creditors. When he was informed that his position would not be renewed, Wagner decided to leave for Paris. In order to avoid his debtors, he was forced to flee, with wife and dog in tow, in the middle of the night.
It was an awful journey; Begun by sneaking under the city’s walls, followed by a precarious journey to the Prussian coast—during which Minna miscarried—and finally completing the voyage by sea on the Norwegian merchant vessel Thetis. Through a chance meeting with Giacomo Meyerbeer, Wagner arrived at Paris with introductions from the famous composer that unfortunately led to very few opportunities. In Paris, he was impoverished and resorted to music criticism (writing for the Paris Revue et gazette musicale and the Dresden Abend-Zeitung) and creating hack arrangements of other composer’s music for the publisher Schlesinger to try to make ends meet.
Years before in Riga, Wagner had read Heinrich Heine’s telling of the myth of the Flying Dutchman (Aus den Memoiren des Herrn von Schnabelewopski). The tale describes a doomed ship and Captain cursed to roam the open seas for eternity or until he can find redemption at the hands of a faithful, loving woman. Wagner has said that the idea to create a libretto from the myth and set it to music emerged from the family’s perilous journey at sea, when the ship was forced to put into a Norwegian coast and the sailors retold the myth. Of course, the hero’s redemption at the hands of a faithful woman is a cultural Romantic trope that predates Wagner (Weber’s Der Freischütz and Euryanthe are just two examples) and characterizes many of Wagner’s later libretti.
In April, 1840 in Paris, Wagner sketched the seaman’s chorus and Senta’s ballad while the family stayed in an overpriced apartment on the Rue du Helder (it has been alleged that later that year Wagner would spend several weeks in a Parisian debtor’s prison). Wagner hoped to offer the scenes and a précis of the plot for audition to the Paris Opéra. After obtaining Meyerbeer’s support, Wagner sent Meyerbeer’s famous librettist Eugene Scribé a copy of his sketch for Holländer. The result was less than ideal—the director of the Opéra purchased the story for 500 francs and presented it to his own composers who would fill out the story and compose the rest of the music. In the following summer, in a much more affordable house just outside the Paris gates, Wagner expanded his own version of the opera to a three act form and completed the music. This is the version that the Boston Lyric Opera is featuring.
Wagner initially intended the work to encompass one act so that it would be appropriate as a ballet opener at the Opéra. It is perhaps due to this functional brevity that gave Wagner the idea to forgo many operatic conventions in this work. However, this version in particular is unique for the way it both reflects its origins in French Grand Opera and portends Wagner’s high German Romanticism. Indeed, one is stricken by the fact that Scribé didn’t accept the scenario. The scene which includes Senta’s Ballad, the first music that Wagner set and auditioned, is a wonderful example of French Grand Opera. The spinning chorus that opens the second act “Summ und brumm” is a perfect example of the “local color” that the audiences at the Opéra loved so much about Meyerbeer’s work. Further, the fact that it is set in Scotland is also typical of the French, who had set chosen to move even Weber’s Der Freischütz from Germany to Scotland in a production from the same year (1841). This scene is followed by Senta’s famous ballad, which, as was typical for the genre, recounts the myth and explains the preceding action and, one could argue, spoils the ending. More importantly though, in this number Wagner’s dramaturgical skills are in full force, shifting between a powerful dramatic line on Senta’s call “Johohoe!” and the nuanced prayer for the Dutchman to find peace. In the character and vocal part of Senta, which Wagner described as a naïve and “altogether robust Northern maid,” one can recognize a prototype of his later dramatic soprano roles.
Another way that this version reveals Wagner’s late aesthetics lies in the transition between acts. In 1859, Wagner would characterize his art as the “most delicate and profound art of transition,” in which his goal is to mediate “all the different moments of transition that separate the extremes of mood.” This is played out in the 1841 Holländer in the subtly composed transition from the sailor’s energetic dotted theme at the end of the first act to the whirl of the spinning wheels that open the second act.
The motivic organization of the opera also emerges from Senta’s ballad. Most memorable is the reminiscence motive associated with the Dutchman himself, which is built from ascending fourths and most commonly heard in the horns. The employment of this motivic association, appropriately termed a “reminiscence motive,” was actually typical of French opera in the period. However, it doesn’t obtain the level of structural organization that Wagner’s fully developed leitmotivic expressions would in his later works such as Tristan und Isolde or Der Ring des Nibelungen.
In the fall of 1842, through Meyerbeer’s help, Wagner’s earlier work Rienzi was accepted for performance in Dresden, leading to a position for Wagner. In January of 1843 Holländer was premiered in Dresden—now revised in the Norwegian version closer to the one the modern audience expects. This production featured some of the best artists of the day, including Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient as Senta and Johann Michael Wächter as the Dutchman (although Wagner did not like Wächter’s Dutchman). After all these years of suffering, his relationship with Meyerbeer finally paid off and Wagner’s future was improving.
However, perhaps as a result of this suffering, Wagner’s devotion to Meyerbeer turned, in hindsight, first to animosity and then to venomous hate. In his autobiographical Mein Leben, Wagner referred to that “wretched Meyerbeer” whose slow writing of a recommendation forced Wagner to wait for an additional three months before acquiring the position in Dresden. Indeed, in 1850 Wagner would write, under pseudonym, his virulent anti-Semitic tract Das Judenthum in der Musik. In 1869, now a famous composer himself, Wagner had it re-issued in a revised form that directly attacked Meyerbeer.
One of the greatest comforts that one can take in the 1841 score for Der Fliegender Holländer is that its beauty predates Wagner’s expressions of hatred. It is difficult to know whether or not the anti-Semitism had yet infected Wagner’s character when he wrote the opera. There is a traditional element of anti-Semitism in the myth, indeed, Heine (of the Jewish persuasion himself) described his title character as the “wandering Jew of the ocean.” Yet Wagner once stated that there is an autobiographical element to the story: that Wagner actually identified with the Dutchman. Perhaps it’s naïve, but I would like to think that at least for a while the music existed apart from the hate.