NZ Opera

New Zealand Opera blog

Shades of Johnny Depp and Dr Who

29.08.13

Distinguished conductor and New Zealand Opera’s Director of Music, Wyn Davies, explains why he’s excited about conducting The Flying Dutchman, even though he wouldn’t call himself a Wagnerian.

And neither would anyone who knows me. I’ve never been one for the over inflated Teutonic repertoire; size just doesn’t do it for me: I don’t hold with the “why have only two French horns when eight will do nicely” school. And where subject matter is concerned I’m quick to look the other way whenever The Ring of Matamata or whatever is the latest fable-babble comes around, and a good number of Wagner’s stories fall into that category. So what am I doing tackling The Flying Dutchman?

Well I’ve always loved most of the music of Tristan und Isolde, some of Die Meistersinger and great chunks of Das Rheingold and certain passages in Parsifal…after all Wagner the musician is a towering genius. It’s just that I could have wished for a different script writer and a stronger editor. But when it comes to The Flying Dutchman, what’s so staggering is its newness. And the shock of it. The year is 1839. Schumann hasn’t yet done Dichterliebe, that pinnacle of drawing room Romanticism. But out comes the 28 year old Wagner’s Dutchman, all guns blazing. This is theatrical, even cinematic Romanticism, undiluted, fully formed and foaming. The hero is the Heathcliff of opera, a storm-beaten piece of rough; and the girl who falls for him does so with a soaring, scorching passion of the kind only opera can supply.

The legend of The Flying Dutchman could hardly be more “romantic”. He is deified and worshipped by Senta who falls into a very advanced state of rapture. He is fascinating because he’s so outside of the ordinary. A gothic Dr Who. You might even get the feeling that Wagner himself identified with him. I think the atmosphere of this story is familiar to us not because we all know Wagner’s opera but because it’s a mixture of ghost story and adventure. From this eventually – a whole century ahead emerged the Hollywood Swashbuckler; films like The Sea Hawk with Errol Flynn and its superb music by Korngold, and even Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Quite a few people have asked if I’m looking forward to conducting The Flying Dutchman, the inference being I think that it’s a significant hurdle to jump. But how could you not relish the chance to play the most heart-on-sleeve piece of music anybody had written to date?

Certainly it is exhilarating music to tackle. Dutchman is a relatively two dimensional if vivid tale, also due in part to the librettist who was Wagner himself (not a course to be recommended). The crux of the opera is Senta’s song, which was the first thing Wagner composed even though it isn’t sung until Act Two. Her three verses contain the bones of the story and the musical gems of the whole piece. It is the first thing a newcomer to the opera should listen to. Senta tells us how the Dutchman conquered the Cape and his heroic challenge to the wild seas that he would prevail even against Hell. Satan heard his challenge and took his word, and ever after the Dutchman is condemned to sail the seas “without aim or rest”. But every seventh year he must come ashore to seek the only thing that will grant him freedom (or as Wagner calls it “redemption” or “salvation”), the love of a woman.

“This is theatrical, even cinematic Romanticism undiluted, fully formed and foaming. The hero is the Heathcliff of opera, a storm-beaten piece of rough; and the girl who falls for him does so with a soaring, scorching passion of the kind only opera can supply.”

She begins with a slow, unaccompanied version of the horn call we associate with the Dutchman, and the verse features rolling restless music that represents sea storms. The refrain about the woman waiting to provide salvation for the heroic Dutchman is the calm antidote to the swelling storm music. All this is the music that Wagner developed into the overture (which is the best known part of the opera) and it has a feeling of inevitability, as if it had sprung into being during sleep, or as if it was always there hanging in the air just waiting for someone to write it down.

Two things meant that Wagner couldn’t resist setting The Flying Dutchman to music. One was the force of the legend. The other was his urge to describe the storms he had experienced himself on a four-week voyage from Riga to London. This must have been like Mendelssohn’s need to write Fingal’s Cave. I’m thinking about this while sitting on a terrace in an Italian valley watching the approach of a storm. Its power is frightening, elemental. It is so many times bigger than men, bigger than buildings, and beyond adequate description by most mortals. But not beyond the 28 year old Richard Wagner, who turns out to be precociously equal to the task. The sea storm music in the overture is the best since Mozart’s Idomeneo and the best before Britten’s Peter Grimes.

The Flying Dutchman is Wagner’s very first mature piece, but in it are buried the seeds of a lot of the famous passages of his later operas: the Valkyries’ Ride is in the leaping horn music, the Funeral Music from Götterdämmerung is in the scene setting music for the Dutchman’s first appearance, the intense solo lines of Tristan are in the oboe solo introducing Erik’s aria, and many more.

My personal job as I prepare the music is to choose one of two approaches to conducting it. We know with hindsight the weight of sound of Wagner’s later more expanded pieces (especially as performed by some German conductors) and the Dutchman can sound very well when done like that. But the other way is to play it lighter, recognising it as the natural inheritor of Beethoven and Mendelssohn and Weber. This second approach is especially applicable to the great choruses. The ladies’ Spinning Chorus and the men’s Sailors’ Chorus are two of the best in the repertoire. They are unforgettable tunes and fine scenes.

“Quite a few people have asked if I’m looking forward to conducting The Flying Dutchman, the inference being I think that it’s a significant hurdle to jump. But how could you not relish the chance to play the most heart-on-sleeve piece of music anybody had written to date?”

And Wyn Daviesthen there is the most crazily ambitious, most highly theatrical scene of the opera in Act Three when the Norwegian crew on shore taunt the Dutchman’s crew aboard ship only to be scared out of their wits by the latter’s ghostly response. It is a massive quarter hour the young Wagner has imagined and one that challenges conductor, director and designer.We have, in Matt Lutton and Zoe Atkinson (director and designer) two super-imaginative people of the same generation as Wagner when he wrote it. Be afraid! Expect theatricality.

By Wyn Davies, Director of Music, NZ Opera.