Although the F word (yes, as in sex) plays an important role in Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman, the fricative of concern is “fidelity.”
LEGENDS AND REDEMPTION
On April 2, 2008, this writer saw a performance of Washington National Opera’s production of Der Fliegende Holländer. According to director Stephen Lawless, Dutchman was the first of Wagner’s operas to enter operatic repertoire and the first to offer Wagner’s later themes involving myth or legend and redemption through womanly love or feminine fidelity.
The events of this operatic story told in just a hair over two hours (but without intermission—Wagner always requires some sort of audience sacrifice) unfold as follows.
Act I, two ships arrive in a Norwegian bay seeking shelter from a bad storm. The Flying Dutchman, the captain of one of these ships, meets Captain Daland and tells him he is looking not only for shelter on land but also for a wife. The Dutchman, a man cursed by the Devil for his seaman’s hubris (he bragged in a storm that he would sail around the Cape of Good Hope if it meant he would sail forever) gets Daland’s attention with a treasure of dazzling value.
Act II, Daland’s daughter Senta reveals she is smitten with the Flying Dutchman despite being courted by Erik, a poor hunter who seeks her hand in marriage. When Erik tells Senta of his disturbing dream forecasting that the Dutchman will carry her away to sea, Senta confesses this is her dream too. When her father comes home, she accepts his wish that she marry this unknown sea captain.
Act III The villagers become spooked by the Dutchman’s ship where the members of the crew are ghosts. Erik approaches Senta and tries to reason with her about the love she once expressed for him and the Dutchman overhears the conversation. The Dutchman thinks he has been betrayed but Senta swears her fealty unto death.
A LEXICON OF FRICATIVES
This writer’s lexicon for The Flying Dutchman includes these words and raises these questions:
F word as a means to produce a family
(Besides a devoted wife, the Dutchman says he wants children. What evidence do we have to believe him or is he just f-ing with Daland and his daughter?)
Friend versus foe
(Is the Dutchman worthy of the hospitality he asks for?)
Fantasy versus reality
(Why has the fantasy of the Flying Dutchman overtaken Senta when she could have the love of Erik? Clearly the Dutchman’s treasures do not interest her.)
Fanaticism versus faith versus reason
(Why does Senta plunge fanatically into her belief that she can save the Dutchman, even after he rejects her?)
Freedom versus fidelity and fealty
(Why is the Dutchman willing to free Senta from her pledge to him though he has eternally chained other women who did not carry through with unwavering fidelity? Note: the Dutchman’s ship is filled in Stephen Lawless’ production with these women who are ghosts.)
Fortune and funds versus poverty
(How could a father be so blindsided by a stranger’s wealth that he could give away his only daughter to a stranger with no ties anywhere?)
(What were those wings flying over the ships occasionally? And why was the Dutchman called The Flying Dutchman? Or did Wagner distort the legend that called his ship by that name?)
AM I AWAKE OR DREAMING?
For now, this writer will let those questions float in favor of discussing how effective the production was. Although the overall orchestral concert under the baton of Heinz Fricke was pleasing, this writer felt the overture featuring the leitmotiv associated with Wagner’s later opera Die Walküre was ponderously slow and that the entire first act lacked energy. The opening scene of Act II with the women spinning wool and exchanging chatter with Senta (played by Jennifer Wilson) livened things up and from there, the pace of the opera picked up.
Despite the energy of Act II, something odd happened in the way the women expressed their merriment—their collective laughing sounded strange and unnatural. This result was clearly a directorial decision. The most compelling singing occurred between Senta and the Dutchman (played by Alan Held) at the end of Act II when they discuss what his needs are and what would be required of her. Act III revealed the Night-of-the-Living-Dead brides who have failed the Dutchman and who are the ghostly crew that freaks out the villagers who have come out to celebrate the marriage of Senta and the Dutchman. The end of Act III seemed unclear. After the Dutchman rejects Senta, did Senta leave her village to find the Dutchman (she walks into the horizon) but no, the program indicated that the “spirits of Senta and the Dutchman are enjoined.” Does spirit mean she has died? The director did not make this clear.
Dutchman is an opera that constantly provokes the question, “Am I awake or dreaming?” Giles Cadle has created sets that appropriately fracture reality. The opening set shows a framed blue portal that expresses both sky and ocean in an abstract painting. The house that Senta lives in has a bright yellow façade with tilted windows.
Does The Flying Dutchman inform contemporary mores and appeal to current day interests? Well, that depends on how negatively one views this world of the 21st century. The Dutchman and Captain Daland claim to be interested in family and in both cases they seem to be violating what’s essential to creating strong family ties. Material wealth has great power in this story and alters the course of true love. Unrealistic expectations and outcomes based on fanaticism and unreasonable demands for fidelity seem to trump common sense. A steady diet of fantasy, dreams, and visions of the supernatural preoccupy many of the characters in this opera. And how about the proliferation of women who are slaves to bad choices involving a man and, in this case, the Dutchman? Why should this behavior be called fidelity or faithfulness?
This writer thinks it is time to try a 21st century framing of The Flying Dutchman. For example, maybe Senta has an avatar in Second Life who meets the Dutchman and the scene shifts between her computer life and her life in a counter culture commune where her parents have raised her. She’s a girl who craves less freedom. Why do people long for things that are impossible? Wake me up when you find out why. Meanwhile I’ll be sawing away on sibilant z’s which are a subset of the fricatives.
Photos - Karin Cooper