Der fliegende Holländer

James Levine
New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
8 March 1979
Metropolitan Opera New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
DalandPaul Plishka
SentaCarol Neblett
ErikWilliam Lewis
MaryJean Kraft
Der Steuermann DalandsWilliam Lewis
Der HolländerJosé van Dam
Opera News

Rarely has the Metropolitan been filled with so much booing as after its premiere of Jean-Pierre PonneIle’s version of Wagner’s “Fliegende Holländer” on March 8, a production first seen in San Francisco two seasons ago. Though innovation is the lifeblood of the theater, Ponnelle’s concept for the composer’s early work proved so perverse, so arbitrary and so antimusical and untextual that one suspects a search for novelty at any cost, integrity tossed to the wind. Basically, Ponnelle has reworked the story as a dream experienced by the Steersman, who is also Erik, Senta’s suitor. Making it a fantasy allows for an anything-goes approach, and almost anything does.

The Steersman falls asleep on deck of Daland’s multi-tiered ship, on which all action transpires. (Strangely enough, while waves toss on either side of the ship, the stormy sky remains stationary.) At the Dutchman’s appearance out of a small closet at the stern of the ship – he resembling Count Dracula – massive red sails, ropes, nets and skeletons provide a nautical nightmare. Daland suddenly becomes some half-dozen Mad Hatter figures, the Dutchman’s treasures line his cape, and gold rains from the heavens. The Steersman’s single wheel multiplies into dozens of spinning wheels in Senta’s house, the girl herself confined to a small lighted platform at stage front, clad in a Middle European wedding dress, while the women are bound by ropes to Mary, and the Dutchman’s portrait is nowhere to be seen. The sleeping Steersman all along has been doubled by a writhing mute, so musical duets become visual trios, and so on.

What we have, then, is the Steersman’s obsession with Senta rather than the girl’s own obsession with the man condemned to sail the seas. At the end there is no suicide, no redemption, only Senta’s dogged following of the man into the closet at the top of the ship, the Steersman awakening from his dream. While these ideas might seem quite theatrical, here they proved only gimmicky effects, unable to be sustained by Wagner’s lengthy musical pieces and text. Once Ponnelle had employed one striking fun-house effect after another, he merely abandoned each to go on to the next, all in the name of the dream. The principal fallacy of the dream idea is that the observer ceases to be interested in the characters or even to listen to the music itself. And if in “Der Fliegende Holländer” one does not become absorbed in and excited by Senta’s abnormal preoccupations and the Dutchman’s agony, the whole point is missed. Is Wagner’s work so weak, so tawdry, as to demand revising? Ponnelle evidently believes so.

Milwaukee Sentinel

New York City, N.Y. — Soprano Carol Neblett made a sensational debut at the Metropolitan Opera Thursday night in a bizarre production of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” that inspired vehement booing. This was New York’s first look at designer Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s dreamlike “Dutchman” which had stirred great controversy when originally unveiled by the San Francisco Opera.
In Ponnelle’s daring, problernatic and yet theatrical view, the tale of that damned and wandering spirit redeemed by a maiden’s true love becomes a sailor’s dream. Staged without interruption, it unfolds in the mind of the sleeping steersman aboard a storm tossed vessel commanded by the father of Senta, the Dutchman’s savior, who appears to us only as a shade of the weary sailor’s imagination.
By removing the “reality” from Wagner’s opera, Ponnelle has totally changed its dramatic values. The plight of the condemned Dutchman, as well as Senta’s visionary compassion, suddenly becomes as insubstantial aS the dream itself. The audience’s attention — and its sympathy — is shifted to the most unlikely of objects: the steersman, whose restless presence intrudes upon every moment of Ponnelle’s work.
In its favor, the Met production boasts. as the steersman, a superb singing actor in tenor William Lewis. Not only must he play the onlooker to his own dream. but he must also imagine himself to be Senta’s real life betrothed, Erik. The entire opera takes place aboard the steersman’s ship. How Ponnelle superimposes the Dutchrnan’s ghostly vessel upon the real one is a tour de force of stagecraft.
As blood red sails unfurl in the background, riggings, tangled with skeletons of the Dutchman’s ancient crew, descend from above. Thereafter, Senta, the spinners with whom she works, her father and the crews of both ships all appear as phantasmagoria. Senta, however the mug may be construed, remains a fearsome vocal assignment. After a not quite assured beginning, Miss Neblett sang gloriously, delivering Senta’s famous ballad at a riveting emotional level and declaiming the girl’s last VOW of faith to the Dutchman with heartstopping technical brilliance.
As the Dutchinan, basso Jose van Dam presented an imposing figure, though too often his great voice was restrained to a low intensity. Basso Paul Plishka made an effectivly comic Daland.
James Levine conducted the production with compelling sensitivity for the musical drama as Wagner conceived it. At the evening’s close, Miss Neblett received a storming ovation and Ponnelle a tidal wave of boos.
Lawrence B. Johnson

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
170 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 173 MByte (MP3)
In-house recording.
A production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (premiere at the Met, San Francisco 1977)
Carol Neblett’s Met debut