Der fliegende Holländer

James Levine
New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
30 December 1989
Metropolitan Opera New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
DalandPaul Plishka
SentaMechthild Gessendorf
ErikGary Lakes
MaryJudith Christin
Der Steuermann DalandsRobert Gambill
Der HolländerJames Morris
New York Times

The late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production of ”Der Fliegende Hollander,” imported by the Metropolitan Opera from San Francisco 10 years ago, was generally reviled. In his version of Wagner’s opera, the action all took place in the head of the Steersman, who dreamed the whole thing. That was an extremely clever concept whose only flaw was that it did not work: attention focused on the psychology of a minor character rather than on the fateful liaison between the ghostly Dutchman and his fanatical lover, Senta.

The Metropolitan’s new ”Dutchman,” directed by August Everding and designed by Hans Schavernoch, had its premiere on Monday night. They take a more wide-awake approach, though diverging almost as inventively as Ponnelle from Wagner’s directions in many ways. No longer placed in the 18th century, their ”Dutchman” is set a century later in a time of electric lights and, apparently, central heating. Daland’s ship has been driven off course by a storm that grounds it on a gigantic iceberg, whose looming presence dominates the first act until the arrival of the Dutchman’s ship, an ironclad monster that in turn dwarfs all else.

The sheer height of the Dutchman’s ship forces the staging into a major miscalculation. James Morris, the eternally restless skipper, is required to climb up and down a steep ladder that reaches from the floor to above the proscenium. He manages athletically enough to deserve hazardous-duty pay, but his aerobic feats have to distract some attention from his vocal artistry.

Mr. Morris, a menacing figure in black cloak and black beard, began powerfully in his despairing monologue (”Die Frist is um”) and for the rest of the evening sang with a rich, dark sonority. In the psychologically crucial but static second act, he and the Senta, Mechthild Gessendorf, did not make much dramatic contact, seeming to live on separate planets -which, of course, is one way of reading the bizarre relationship between the Dutchman and Senta.

Often, clever staging ideas left the sharpest impression, such as curious villagers’ wiping away frost from windows in an effort to spy on the first meeting of the lovers. Daland’s sleet-shrouded vessel, the towering iceberg and the Dutchman’s overtopping vessel lingered in the imagination throughout the opera and for hours afterward. And why not? The Dutchman, despite his endless voyage in search of love, remains a cold customer. Ice is this handsome production’s ever-present element and ruling symbol.

There were musical strong points, too. James Levine and the orchestra captured the bluster and tension of the score. A fresh-voiced American tenor, Robert Gambill, proved a delightful surprise as the hard-drinking Steersman. (Would you hire this man to navigate your oil tanker?) As in the Ponnelle version and following current fashion, the three brief acts are performed without intermission. That was Wagner’s original idea, though he abandoned it before the first performance in 1843. In this form, the ”Dutchman” becomes, in effect, one act lasting two and a half hours, edging out by a long shot the first acts of ”Gotterdammerung” and ”Parsifal.” For a good Wagnerite, however, length is never an insurmountable problem. Thus integrated, the opera can achieve a dramatic impulse that is difficult to sustain through intermissions.

Miss Gessendorf’s Senta lacked some flexibility and beauty of tone in her three-versed Ballad, but her sizable soprano easily asserted itself in the passionate coda. She was always audible over Wagner’s stormy orchestration and in the current Wagnerian climate, that may be all one should expect. Gary Lakes, as the rejected Erik, was short a dulcet tone or two on top, but delivered a sturdy tenor sound elsewhere. Paul Plishka was an aptly crass Daland, but hardly a dramatic presence except in the jovial aria in which he urges his daughter to be nice to the mysterious stranger. As if Senta needed any encouragement.

When the Dutchman’s ghastly crew materialized in the final act, it appeared that he was the captain of a slave ship: manacled prisoners in pale makeup writhed in agony in the vessel’s brig, like their skipper presumably awaiting redemption and release by human love. Miss Gessendorf, incidentally, did not attempt the traditional suicidal leap at the end but went to her death more sensibly, down a flight of backstage stairs. THE CAST – DER FLIEGENDE HOLLANDER, opera in three acts by Richard Wagner, libretto by the composer; conductor, James Levine; production by August Everding; sets, Hans Schavernoch; costumes, Lore Haas; lighting, Gil Wechsler. At the Metropolitan Opera. Senta…Mechthild Gessendorf Erik…Gary Lakes Dutchman…James Morris Daland…Paul Plishka Steersman…Robert Gambill Mary…Judith Christin

Donal Henahan – 13 December 1989

Los Angeles Times

‘Der Fliegende Hollander’ Walks Gangplank at the Met

The program at the Metropolitan Opera on Monday claimed that August Everding’s lavish new production of “Der Fliegende Hollander” took place as usual “in the 1770s.”
Don’t you believe it. This wasn’t Wagnerian business as usual.
The legendary Flying Dutchman apparently roamed the seas on a huge ocean liner. In place of the blood-red sails described in the text, we saw a blood-red anchor dangling from the steel prow. The anguished protagonist made his entrance singing “Die Frist ist um” from a suspended gangplank.
Senta, the obsessive heroine, and her friends didn’t do much spinning. In fact, they couldn’t do any spinning.
The score still meticulously describes that quaint and busy activity, but most of the women sat under electric lights in some sort of factory and mended miles of fabric by hand. A couple of choristers actually operated sewing machines.
The only wheel to be found on the stage propelled the chair that, for reasons unexplained, accommodated Frau Mary. “Ich spinne fort,” the old nurse muttered on cue, disdaining Senta’s dream–“I’ll go on spinning.” Then she dutifully picked up her needlepoint.
I know. I know. Details. . . .
Unfortunately, they were crucial, symptomatic details. They tried to make the opera look modern, but ended up making it look silly.
Everding, normally regarded as a knowing conservative in matters of operatic reinterpretation, decided to contradict the letter of the libretto. Although the practice is dangerous, it sometimes can illuminate an inspired vision. There would seem to be little inspiration here, alas, just knee-jerk trendiness.
Everding obviously savored the bleakness of Hans Schavernoch’s sets. Looming icebergs, frosty vistas, wind-swept skies and violent snows threaten the sterile milieu of the industrial bourgeoisie. It is all very picturesque, not very relevant.
Given Lore Haas’ Ibsenesque costumes, Everding dressed the characters in affecting cliches of contemporary alienation. The basic action scheme, however, adhered stubbornly to operatic banalities.
What we have here is a crisis of stylistic credibility.
All might not have been lost had the Met been able to deal in musical redemption. The sonic strengths, unfortunately, could not outweigh the dramatic weaknesses.
Although James Levine enforced his customary orchestral brilliance in the pit, the wonted grandeur was achieved without an abiding sense of urgency. His tempos tended toward the sluggish, and rhythmic momentum turned out to be a sometime thing.
The conductor opted for the cumulative tensions of Wagner’s original one-act version. Then he compromised that wise decision by coming to a full stop for the concert ending of the overture, possibly in quest of automatic applause.
The nearly all-American cast proved generally competent. By current standards in Wagner, that can be deemed a compliment.
James Morris attempted to imbue the title role with bel-canto values. It was a rare and admirable effort. He lacked the incisive force of a bona fide Heldenbariton, however, and the dominating, brooding heroism of the character seemed to elude him.
Mechthild Gessendorf mustered a lot of strenuous swooping and flatting in the cruel climactic phrases of Senta, and often confused banal poses with acting. She was serving, not incidentally, as an early replacement for the recalcitrant Eva Marton.
Paul Plishka’s sturdy basso sounded tired in the bluff platitudes of Daland. Gary Lakes, like many an Erik before him, found the fusion of Italianate cantilena and Germanic bluster discomforting. Robert Gambill introduced an agile figure and a fragile tenorino as the Steersman. Replacing Gweneth Bean, the ubiquitous Judith Christin contributed a theatrically giddy, vocally lightweight Frau Mary.
The Met audience, which paid up to $105 for the privilege, cheered as if it had returned to the golden age of song. Apparently New York does not remember George London and Leonie Rysanek or Hans Hotter and Astrid Varnay, much less Friedrich Schorr and Kirsten Flagstad.

Martin Bernheimer – 13 December 1989

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 316 MByte (MP3)
Matinee broadcast
A production by August Everding (1989)