Opera Buff in 20 Minutes: The Flying Dutchman

Setting: Norway, unspecified time.

Plot in three sentences: Accursed seaman, doomed to roam for ever unless he finds true love, has his chance to go ashore and find her. Senta, a bizarre girl obsessed with his legend, takes an immediate fancy to him, spurns her huntsman-suitor Erik, but the Dutchman imagines that she really loves Erik and sails away. She proves her love by flinging herself into the sea after him, letting him rest at last.

Reputation: Not Wagner’s first opera, but the first genuine Wagner opera. Its use of musical phrases for characters and emotions looks forward to his later use of ‘leitmotif’ in The Ring; and the theme of redemption through love is one of his favourites. The music looks ahead to the later, more intense harmonies of The Ring and even Tristan.

Critical reaction: Not an immediate success – it didn’t last longer than four performances. Wilhelmina Schroder-Devrient, the original Senta, said to the composer, ‘Good God, Wagner, what a mess you’ve made!’

Highlights: The overture is a very popular concert programme filler; the Spinning Song in Act 2, which sounds as much like Sullivan as Wagner; the Steersman’s Song in Act 3.

Death toll: 1. Senta and the Dutchman – but we see them rise to heaven. 2. The ghostly crew of the Dutchman’s ship (who are dead already).

What to say in a loud voice in the interval bar: ‘Wagner may have diluted the narrative’s drama, but the force of the orchestration and the writing for Senta and the Dutchman take the whole to a new, more spiritual dimension: early portents of Götterdämmerung.’

What to say quietly in the pub: ‘That Senta – she’s barking mad, isn’t she?’

Rob Ainsley, Classic CD magazine, 1995

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