Der fliegende Holländer

Fritz Reiner
Chorus of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, London Philharmonic Orchestra
7/11 June 1937
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
DalandLudwig Weber
SentaKirsten Flagstad
ErikMax Lorenz
MaryMary Jarred
Der Steuermann DalandsBen Williams
Der HolländerHerbert Janssen

Score another triumph for Richard Caniell and his remarkable Immortal Performances label. I do not use the word ‘remarkable’ lightly. The truth is that Immortal Performances has consistently been reissuing performances that have been issued before in some form, often repeatedly, and inevitably the quality of this label’s restoration is miles beyond that which has gone before. That is certainly true of this DUTCHMAN, which has had a checkered history. Even in this production it has been labeled ‘slightly abridged’ because of the apparent loss of the original recording of the Erik-Senta scene from the second act (the scene that follows Senta’s Ballade), which has simply been omitted here. Wisely, Immortal Performances puts the disc break after the Ballade, which is preferable to creating a gap of a few seconds in the music. A few other chunks that were missing and were not as self-contained as that duet have been filled in with excerpts from other performances, connected with keeping Daland (Weber) and Reiner consistently throughout. Caniell explains in detail where these occur in his notes accompanying the set [to wit: ‘the Senta-Erik scene in Act II is missing. Reconstruction of this performance, keeping Weber as Daland, required the introduction of 16 minutes in Act I from a 1936 performance and one and a half minutes in Act III. All else is conducted by Reiner. Now, for the first time, the memorable singing of these renowned vocal artists can be heard in sustained musical and dramatic continuity and in good sound as well’].

EMI intended to record as much of Kirsten Flagstad as they could in the 1937 ‘Coronation Season’ at Covent Garden. They made test recordings of the performances of THE FLYING DUTCHMAN on 7 and 11 June, 1937, and a few other tests on 16 June (with a different Erik). The latter have remained missing and are presumably lost. EMI did not do a very good job of keeping and documenting what they had, which has created problems for those who would try to restore and make available these treasures.

Since this was to focus on Flagstad, EMI apparently did not record the Overture, so Caniell provides a Reiner / Metropolitan performance from 1950 to get the performance started. Once past that exciting and taut performance, we are thrust into a performance of incredible momentum and drama, and with stunningly good sound for a 1937 live recording. Prior issues…have issued parts or all of the material, usually incorrectly pitched and with more distortion and compression than we have here. This release opens up the sound of this performance in a way that has never been the case before.

Having Flagstad’s Senta, captured here in the prime of her career, is the obvious selling point for this set. Indeed her performance may surprise those listeners who have typed her as a matronly personality. She makes real the naïve, sacrificing, and hopelessly romantic maiden that Wagner imagined in creating his Senta, with singing that is extraordinarily beautiful. The highlight is ‘Wie aus der Ferne’, the second act duet between Senta and the Dutchman. Flagstad sings with a tenderness and a glowing radiance that no other Senta has duplicated. What is particularly special here is having Flagstad’s Senta, captured here in the prime of her career, the interaction between Flagstad and Janssen – not a baritone and soprano singing to us, but two characters relating with specificity to each other. It is this duet, rather than the Ballade, that is the locus of Flagstad’s performance.

Janssen too is a uniquely specific Dutchman. One normally thinks of Schorr and George London as perhaps the greatest of Dutchmen on disc, and indeed Janssen lacks the particularly lovely and darkly focused sound of those two. But his voice makes clear the desperation and anguish of the character, and the specificity of his way of inflecting individual words and whole phrases making his portrayal treasurable. The Dutchman is one of Wagner’s darkest characters, in a state of perpetual despondency. The risks for a singer portraying this character are to so wallow in that gloom that the result is a monochromatic bore, or alternately to concentrate on the music so that what we get is a vocal concert rather than Wagner’s music drama. Janssen avoids either extreme, giving us the complexity and depth of the character.

What strikes me about this performance, more than any one specific element, is its dramatic force and unity. This is a true musical and dramatic ensemble performance, where the characters seem to be truly interacting with each other and engaged in a real drama, rather than a high level vocal concert. These are characters who listen to, and react to and with each other. Even the orchestra seems wholly involved with the drama.

The remainder of the cast is strong, particularly Ludwig Weber’s Daland, again given here as a complete human being rather than a one-dimensional greedy villain, is another asset of the performance, and what we hear of Max Lorenz’s Erik makes us regret the fact that his big scene with Senta is lost.

Fritz Reiner deserves as much credit as Flagstad and Janssen for the success of this performance. DUTCHMAN is an uneven work, the work of a composer still finding his voice, and unless carefully shaped, the opera can drag or lack dramatic shape. Reiner brings a unique combination of musical strengths to this performance: a strong rhythmic pulse, a blend of supple and firm phrasing, carefully graded dynamics, and above all a continuous momentum that carries everything along with a sense of inevitability. Even the skillfully managed insertions to replace missing material never interrupt that flow, which is a credit to the skills of Caniell.

If you have this performance in some other restoration, you really have not heard it at all and need to replace it with this. It is worth pointing out that Immortal Performances upholds their usual high production values beyond the technical quality of the recording. The booklet contains wonderful photographs and two extremely valuable essays by Caniell.

As those who follow this label know, there is almost always going to be some interesting filler. Here we have excerpts from two Standard Hour radio broadcasts featuring Flagstad, with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra conducted by Gaetano Merola. Her 1949 concert performance of Senta’s Ballade is more richly vocalized than her performance within the context of the opera (in part due to the better recording quality), but I find the timidity or hesitance expressed in the 1937 performance closer to the mark. Her singing of the three Strauss songs is glorious.”

Henry Fogel

Voix des Arts

The Royal Opera House Coronation Season of International Opera mounted in celebration of the 1937 enthroning of King George VI and his consort, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, opened on 19 April with a performance of Verdi’s Otello with Giovanni Martinelli in the title rôle, Fernanda Ciana as Desdemona, and Cesare Formichi as Iago. During the course of the subsequent eleven weeks, the operatic homage to the royal couple encompassed performances of Borodin’s Prince Igor and Bizet’s Carmen with Eduard Kandl as Igor and Escamillo; Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, in which Vanni-Marcoux bade farewell to London as Golaud; Donizetti’s Don Pasquale with Mafalda Favero as Norina and Dino Borgioli as Ernesto; Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-bleue with Germaine Lubin as Ariane; Gluck’s Alceste with Lubin in the name part and Orphée et Eurydice with Dame Maggie Teyte as Eurydice; Euguene Goossens’s Don Juan de Mañara, given its world première with Lawrence Tibbett as Don Juan; Puccini’s Tosca with Gina Cigna as the eponymous diva, Martinetlli as Cavaradossi, and Tibbett, appearing for the first time at Covent Garden (and also alternating with Formichi as Iago in Otello), as Scarpia and Turandot with Dame Eva Turner, Licia Albanese, and Martinelli; Verdi’s Aida with Cigna, Ebe Stignani, and Martinelli and Falstaff with a fantastic cast including Formichi, Maria Caniglia, and Albanese; and Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer with Herbert Janssen and Kirsten Flagstad, Tristan und Isolde with Lauritz Melchior and Flagstad, Der Ring des Nibelungen with Flagstad as Brünnhilde under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Parsifal with Torsten Ralf and Kerstin Thorborg. By any standard, it was an extraordinary season, rivaled in Covent Garden’s history—indeed, in the history of opera in the modern era—only by the fourteen-week season presented on the occasion of the 1911 coronation of George V. Even in the context of such musical excellence, the season’s Wagner productions were remarkable, none more so than Charles Moor’s staging of Der fliegende Holländer. The production united Kölner baritone Herbert Janssen (1892 – 1965), then starting his second decade on Covent Garden’s roster, as the Holländer, Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad (1895 – 1962), still new to Covent Garden (she débuted at the Royal Opera House as Isolde on 18 May 1936: though she was ill with a nasty head cold on her first night, she received fifteen curtain calls at the performance’s end), as Senta, Düsseldorf-born tenor Max Lorenz as Erik, and Viennese bass Ludwig Weber (1899 – 1974) as Daland, under the direction of Fritz Reiner (1888 – 1963), also a recent Covent Garden débutant. [His début was in Parsifal with Ralf and Frida Leider on 29 April 1936: he also conducted Flagstad’s début and the three subsequent performances of Tristan und Isolde in May 1936.] If there were an operatic Eden, Kirsten Flagstad would surely be its Eve: from her intoxicating example Wagner singing in the later Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries was born. The 11 June broadcast of Der fliegende Holländer is rightly a famous performance. Now, owing to the painstaking restoration and conservation work of Richard Caniell and Immortal Performances, the listener in 2015 can truly hear rather than merely perceiving the performance’s importance. The current Queen could hope for no finer tributes to the musical heritage of the opera company under her patronage and to a tremendously important time in her and her parents’ lives.

Following accomplished but stylistically uncertain early efforts, Der fliegende Holländer was the score in which the twenty-nine-year-old Wagner found his mature voice, a fact that he acknowledged in his sprawling 1851 manifesto Eine Mittheilung an meine Freunde. The Leitmotifs in Der fliegende Holländer are primarily dramatic devices rather than the psychological acuities in musical form that they would become in Der Ring des Nibelungen. The undistorted sound quality achieved by Caniell’s remastering of this performances enables contemplation of the standards of Wagner performance at Covent Garden in Fritz Reiner’s first seasons on the company’s podium. Compelled by the necessity of filling gaps left by portions of the 11 June performance that have not survived, Caniell seamlessly integrated material from other performances: unlike the proprietors of many labels, Caniell provides detailed information about the sources of the excerpts used as patches. The Overture and a few choral interjections before Erik’s entrance in Act Three are sourced from the Metropolitan Opera broadcast performance of 30 December 1950, in which Reiner presided over Hans Hotter’s Holländer and Astrid Varnay’s Senta (Ljuba Welitsch was the originally-scheduled Senta). The continuity of Weber’s Daland and Karl Ostertag’s (1903 – 1979) Steuermann is preserved by using brief passages from a 1936 Munich broadcast conducted by Carl Leonhardt. It was impossible to replicate the scene for Senta and Erik in Act Two with a recording featuring Flagstad and Lorenz, so the scene’s omission sensibly was not rectified. Most importantly, Caniell has corrected and equalized the pitch bar by bar, producing a recording that is a faithful document of how the performance must have sounded in the theatre (or over the wireless) in 1937, in addition to providing extensive, educating rather than pedantic liner notes that provide the listener with fresh insights and a sense of context whether hearing this performance for the first or the fiftieth time.

Under Reiner’s baton, the Covent Garden chorus and orchestra give an invigorating account of Wagner’s score. Neither the choral singing nor the orchestral playing is perfect: the earnestness of their efforts notwithstanding, the choristers often sound stressed by their music, and the instrumentalists make enough mistakes to remind listeners that even in such legendary settings musicians are fallible creatures. Still, the positive effects of what was surely a rigorous regimen of preparation are audible in the work of both chorus and orchestra. Reiner’s pacing of the performance is surprising, especially when compared to the familiar 1950 MET broadcast performance. The expected thrust is present throughout the performance, but there are scenes in which the conducting evinces a profoundly poetic wistfulness. The casts of the Covent Garden and MET performances are very different, of course, but it seems unlikely that this alone accounts for the marked dissimilarities between the two broadcasts. Whatever factors contributed to the nuances of Reiner’s interpretation of the score in London, the results are magical. Owing in large part to the support that they receive from the conductor, the singers are able to create characters who are credible as genuine individuals rather than typical Wagnerian archetypes, and the drama is engagingly visceral, not coldly symbolic. An erotic electricity crackles in the orchestra when the Holländer and Senta interact in Act Two, and the opera’s finale ultimately does not seem—as is usually the case—like an early study for Isolde’s Liebestod and Brünnhilde’s Schlussgesang but like the desperate action of a young woman consumed by a love too great to be sacrificed to conventionality. Reiner’s approach introduces an element of inevitability into the drama that makes the characters’ decisions all the more engrossing. These people are destined to collide, but Daland chooses to offer Senta to the Holländer as a bride in exchange for treasure, and Senta chooses to reject Erik’s warnings and join her fate to the Holländer’s. Her choice is not death: it is merely to follow the man she loves into his world, the eternal sea. Perhaps it would be hyperbolic rhetoric to term this performance visionary, but Reiner’s conducting of this performance conveys a quixotic but very specific exegesis. The keystone of this Fliegende Holländer is introspection. As a manager of musical personnel, Reiner is known to have been an exacting, sometimes intractable figure, but as the manager of this performance he displays perceptiveness unique in both his and the opera’s discographies.

Despite the participation of titans of Wagner repertory, Covent Garden’s Coronation Season Fliegende Holländer had as unified an ensemble cast as has ever been heard in the opera on recordings. Singing Mary, Senta’s nurse, Yorkshire-born contralto Mary Jarred (1899 – 1993) is a lovingly maternal but vivid presence, delivering ‘Ei, fleißig! Fleißig, wie sie spinnen!’ energetically and dotingly. Ostertag shames a number of today’s exponents of his rôle by truly singing the Steuermann’s music. His account of ‘Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer’ is a model of intelligent phrasing.

With the duet for Senta and Erik missing from the recording of Act Two of the 1937 broadcast and no suitable replacement being known to exist, there is only Erik’s scene in Act Three by which to judge Lorenz’s degree of comfort in the music. It is an awkwardly-written rôle, virtually a holdover from Weber’s Der Freischütz or Euryanthe. In the opening of the scene, Lorenz voices ‘Was mußt ich hören! Gott, was mußt ich sehn!’ with frenzied intensity. Reiner sets a measured tempo for the Kavatine, ‘Willst jenes Tags du nicht dich mehr entsinnen,’ enabling the singer to accurately place tones in the upper register and execute the ornaments gracefully. Lorenz sings the top As and B♭ and turns very elegantly indeed. Unlike many Eriks, the character portrayed by Lorenz does not badger Senta: he is none too happy about the path that she chooses, but his concern is that of affection rather than possessiveness. Musically, Lorenz’s voice was an ideal instrument for the rôle: commanding the resources to project over Wagner’s orchestrations, he also had the full range and the sweetness of tone demanded by the part. In this performance, he earns adulation even with nearly half of his music missing.

When Wagner’s libretto suggests that Senta is still in the full flush of youth, why is her father so often depicted as an old man in various stages of decrepitude? Visually, audiences in large theatres may well benefit from the generation gap between father and daughter being made artificially wide, but Wagner’s music for Daland benefits tremendously from youthful, virile singing like that offered by Weber in this performance. Without question, his was one of the finest bass voices of the Twentieth Century, but this Daland is notable for the lightness of both timbre and characterization. In the Act One duet with the Holländer, Weber’s singing of ‘Wie? Hört ich recht?’ is brawny but not unduly heavy. At the time of this performance, he seems to have been capable of doing almost anything he wanted to do with his voice, and his singing of ‘Mein Kind, du siehst mich auf der Schwelle’ and Daland’s aria ‘Mögst du, mein Kind, den fremden Mann’ in Act Two is poised and powerful. His lines in the trio with Senta and Holländer are shaped with dramatic alertness, beginning with a bristling pronouncement of ‘Verzeiht! Mein Volk hält draußen sich nicht meht.’ In Weber’s performance, Daland is his own man and less obviously a prototype for Pogner, König Marke, or Gurnemanz. As Weber portrays him in this performance, Daland is far more winsome than he often is: for once, he is not a figure who seems to have soured in the briny salt air.

From her first note, Flagstad’s Senta is precisely what the label promises—an immortal performance. After seeming to actually enjoy her volleys of ‘Ho jo hoe’ and the like, she phrases the Act Two Ballade, ‘Traft ihr das Schiff im Meere an,’ with unerring control and complete confidence. Her lines in Senta’s duet with the Holländer, launched by ‘Versank ich jetzt in wunderbares Träumen,’ are phrased with imagination and individuality. ‘Wohl kenn ich Weibes heil’ge Pflichten’ is sung with girlish abandon, though there is nothing dainty about Flagstad’s top Bs. The soprano’s upper register likely gains most from Caniell’s stabilization of pitch: aside from a few top notes that sound slightly shrill, Flagstad’s voice is very flatteringly reproduced. Like Dame Joan Sutherland’s early broadcasts, this Fliegende Holländer likely gives a truer notion of the amplitude of the voice than almost any of Flagstad’s too-few studio recordings. The fullness of the middle octave of the voice is surpassed by no other Senta on disc, and those who allege that Flagstad’s singing was matronly throughout her career surely have not heard this release. In fact, her singing in Act Three is particularly significant for its freshness and undiluted expressivity. In the opera’s final moments, her singing of ‘Preis’ deinen Engel und sein Gebot! Hier steh ich, treu dir bis zum Tod!’ erupts from the disc with an immediacy that could hardly be greater were the listener in a prime seat in the stalls at Covent Garden. The solidity of the top As and B♭ leaves no doubt about the firmness of Senta’s resolve, but these are not the defiant tones of Isolde or Brünnhilde: these are the sounds of a young woman embracing new, transformed life. Above all, they are the products of one of the world’s greatest voices, here on extraordinary form and finally preserved in sonics worthy of the singing. Also worthy of Flagstad’s artistry—and, from the perspective of this writer, reasons to acquire this Immortal Performances release as compelling as the 1937 Fliegende Holländer—are the 1949 and 1950 San Francisco broadcast recordings of Senta’s Ballade and three of Richard Strauss’s most celebrated Lieder included on the set’s second disc. The passage of twelve years robbed Flagstad of nothing in terms of her vocal and dramatic interpretations of the Ballade, which in the San Francisco performance conducted by San Francisco Opera founder Gaetano Merola has even greater lushness than in the Covent Garden broadcast. Flagstad premièred Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder in London’s Royal Albert Hall on 22 May 1950, less than five months before the performances of ‘Befreit,’ ‘Allerseelen,’ and ‘Cäcilie’ presented here. Though the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier was one of the rôles that Artur Bodanzky charged her with learning before traveling to the USA to fulfill her new contract with the Metropolitan Opera, she never sang any of Strauss’s operas in New York or elsewhere. The availability of these performances of ‘Befreit,’ ‘Allerseelen,’ and ‘Cäcilie’ in such fine sound partially makes amends for the missed opportunities of Flagstad’s Marschallin, Ariadne, and Färberin.

The near-impossible ambiguity of the Holländer is that, in order to be wholly believable in accordance with Wagner’s text, he must sound like both a man reckless enough to have made a deal with the devil and one capable of inspiring the sort of undeviating redemptive love that Senta develops for him. Bringing to the part a voice of a size appropriate for the music, Janssen has no need to cheat at either end of the range as many Holländers have done. Like Flagstad’s and Weber’s, his voice is appealingly spry, but his characterization is guided by an uncommonly thoughtful maturity. In the Act One aria ‘Die Frist ist um, und abermals verstrichen sind sieben Jahr,’ Janssen is untroubled by the frequent top E♭s, but the most arresting component of his interpretation is the world-weariness that he evinces without warping the vocal line with ponderousness. In the duet with Daland, he sculpts ‘Weit komm ich her; verwehrt bei Sturm und Wetter ihr mir den Ankerplatz?’ with poignant hesitation, the words those of a man too often injured to risk hoping anew. Janssen and Flagstad spellbindingly portray a man and woman falling in love rather than allegorical representations of sin and redemption in the Holländer’s Act Two duet with Senta, ‘Wie aus der Ferne längst vergangner Zeiten.’ The dramatic focus and beauty of tone that the baritone exhibits in his singing of ‘Du bust ein Engel, eines Engels Liebe Verworfne selbst zu trösten Weiß!’ are phenomenal, his security in the high tessitura ushering him into the rarified company of singers who can manage this music without strain. In Act Three, the heartbreak in his articulation of ‘Verloren! Ach! Verloren! Ewig verlornes Heil!’ is crushing, the climactic top F aimed like an arrow at the heart of fickle destiny. His pronouncement of ‘den „fliegende Holländer“ nennt man mich’ is crestfallen rather than menacing, the singer projecting the totality of the character’s troubled psyche through those six words. Cumulatively, Janssen is perhaps the most sympathetic Holländer on disc: Schorr had greater tonal orotundity, Nissen equal nobility of demeanor, and Hotter more sheer voice, but no recorded Holländer past or present is as moving as Janssen was in this 1937 performance.

Many singers’ and conductors’ work in Der fliegende Holländer suggests that their notions of effectively performing the opera—the score in which Wagner became Wagner, as it were—are that the composer’s stylistic advancement is best served by making Der fliegende Holländer sound like Tristan und Isolde, Siegfried, or Parsifal. How wrongheaded the 1937 Covent Garden broadcast performance of Der fliegende Holländer proves this to be! As is almost always true in opera, the most effective performances of any score are those in which the characters, however parabolic, are invested with recognizable humanity. Similarly, the most effective recordings are those in which the performances at hand are lovingly prepared and presented. From both of these perspectives, Immortal Performances’ edition of the 1937 Covent Garden Der fliegende Holländer broadcast is one of the most important, most inspiring releases in more than a century of recorded opera.

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A production by Emil Praetorius
Incomplete, contains about two third of the opera.