Der fliegende Holländer

David Parry
The Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
6-11 January 2004
Blackheath Halls London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
DalandEric Halfvarson
SentaNina Stemme
ErikKim Begley
MaryPatricia Bardon
Der Steuermann DalandsPeter Wedd
Der HolländerJohn Tomlinson
Corliss Phillabaum

Chandos has produced an extensive series of operas in English, and this 2004 studio recording of The Flying Dutchman is one of their best. In the title role bass-baritone John Tomlinson, who was a brilliant Wotan in Harry Kupfer’s Bayreuth staging of the The Ring, brings dark vocal power and passionate commitment along with crystal clear projection of the English text to the role. His Senta, soprano Nina Stemme, offers one of the finest accounts of her role on disc, singing with warm tone, a seamless scale, and great intensity, and, in the tradition of such Swedish singers as Nicolai Gedda, her English puts many native Englishspeakers to shame. The remaining members of the cast provide sterling support and David Parry draws plenty of dramatic force from his fine orchestra and chorus. Christopher Cowell’s English translation is faithful, clear and straightforward and the booklet includes a full copy of the English text. The recorded sound is warm and transparent and well-balanced with the voices so that the text comes through clearly. The recording is also a rarity these days in taking advantage of the capabilities of stereo to clarify the flow of the dramatic action. This is a very moving performance and unless you object in principle to opera in translation and have fluent German, you may find the experience of hearing this opera in a language you understand a revelation. (And it is worth noting that Wagner himself always insisted that his operas be sung in the language of the audience, the meaning of his words was more important to him than their sound!) Strongly recommended.

The Chandos ‘Opera in English’ series, supported by the Peter Moores Foundation, adds another Wagner work to its burgeoning collection – now approaching seventy titles in total. Composers represented so far, whilst ranging from Handel to Gounod, seem to concentrate on Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Bizet, Donizetti and Janáček, so it is good to see more Wagner included. The other notable Wagner work already in the catalogue is the Goodall Ring cycle, which was released to critical acclaim in 2001.

With so many excellent versions of The Flying Dutchman on the market – featuring conductors such as Klemperer, Levine, von Karajan, Dohnanyi, Böhm, Sinopoli and Barenboim, and Hans Hotter and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing the title role – it is a formidable task to bring out one that compares favourably. This version arrives with the head-start of being different – in English rather than German – and therefore appealing to a particular market. Yet it is in any case able to tackle the competition head-on, with an excellent cast, in what turns out to be an all-round top production.

It is immediately apparent from the emotionally charged Overture that David Parry has got the work under his skin, with the brilliant opening at once capturing the nervous tension in what is an exuberant and passionate performance. Wild, rushing, fevered, suitably tempestuous, with aptly coarse brass, the overture is commensurate with, and therefore a good foretaste of, the rest of the work. It is a gripping, on-edge, and well-paced performance, and where the sections of lyrical beauty break in, breath-takingly lush and romantic.

Eric Halfvarson plays Daland capably, Nina Stemme is an effectively frantic and unbridled Senta, Kim Begley copes excellently with the rather difficult role of the hopeless and vaguely pathetic Eric, and Patricia Bardon is a proficient Mary. John Tomlinson is fantastic as a suitably agonised Dutchman – from his very first words despair and wretchedness shine through. His black, dark, harsh tone is perfect for this role, and excellent enunciation is a definite bonus. Some Dutchmen are untouchable, unrivalled – Willard White in the 1997 ENO production, conducted by Paul Daniel, epitomised the Dutchman role for me – but John Tomlinson here comes close.

I have very few quibbles with this performance. One of these is that Peter Wedd, the Steersman, has a voice more suited to Italian opera than to Wagner, and the touching Steersman’s song comes across as rather wet and effeminate. In places I would like to hear even more throbbing passion, as even this does not quite reach the heights of wild abandon that I look for in a recording. One feels that very occasionally the performance is slightly in need of propulsion. The Italianate Wedd apart, the cast has been extremely well chosen, and the standard of singing is outstanding. The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Geoffrey Mitchell Choir are similarly superb.

Ever the purist, I cannot claim to be a fan of opera in English. Firstly, what’s wrong with reading the libretto beforehand, and secondly, it is usually the case that opera in English is as unintelligible as in its original language! But I can appreciate the demand for it, and here, one really can hear the words – a tremendous achievement, rendering this a very valuable addition to the Chandos series, and demonstrating how Chandos have hit the mark with their typical efficacy. I thus have no hesitation in saying that this brilliant production is one that I can heartily recommend if you don’t mind – or would prefer – the work in English rather than the original German!

Em Marshall

It’s 30 years since Peter Moores cajoled EMI into recording the Goodall Ring. Now the flagship of Chandos’s Moores-inspired Opera in English series, that set still stands the test of time as one of the essential Ring recordings, thanks to its inspirational conducting and some of the finest Wagner singing on disc, not least Alberto Remedios’s mellifluous Siegfried; the fact that it is sung in English is almost incidental to its virtues as the record of a real live cycle. Frankly, this Dutchman – Moores’s first Wagnerian offering since then – is simply not in the same class. If you want the opera in English, though, here it is, in a good, clean studio production, with some use of ‘sonic stage’ effects, excellent balance between voices and orchestra, more than adequately sung, finely played and competently conducted. And no need for jokes about the translation (by Christopher Cowell) all sounding like ‘double Dutch’ either. As the fateful seafarer, John Tomlinson’s diction is so distinct you could take dictation, while an innocent ear might never guess that the imported Swedish Senta, a blessedly unsqually (if less than ecstatic) Nina Stemme, is any less of a native Anglophone than her father, the Scandinavian-sounding but Illinois-born (and rather woolly voiced) Eric Halfvarson. Kim Begley’s properly tormented, rather than merely tiresome Erik is a real bonus. But, for so elementally tempestuous a work, it all feels rather safe and flat. Minus his compelling stage presence, Tomlinson’s dour old sea dog betrays a bit too much of a ‘Bayreuth bark’, while his pitch too often flaps around like a loose sail in a storm. No, for a really dangerous Dutchman, it’s best to go live to Bayreuth. Though sadly Woldemar Nelsson’s glowing 1985 version, with Simon Estes and Lisbeth Balslev, and Sawallisch’s even more thrilling 1961 reading, with Silja and Crass, are both now unavailable, Astrid Varnay’s radiantly reckless redeemer and Hermann Uhde’s mesmerically haunting Holländer on the 1955 Keilberth recording have rarely been bettered.

Mark Pappenheim

Musically, this is one of the least successful of Chandos’ Opera in English series. David Parry leads the work as if he’s not particularly attuned to it. Granted, his tempos and use of dynamics seem right and appropriate, but if you compare his reading to say, Klemperer’s or Dorati’s, inner tension and an overall concept seem to be lacking. He revs the brass section of the London Philharmonic up to a thrilling sound, and he gets the score’s manic depression right, but we are not left with a coherent dramatic experience. The big choral sequences don’t work very well either, but this could be the fault of the engineers–the Dutchman’s crew sounds as if they’re in Pittsburgh in the last act.

The singers are more impressive than the singing. John Tomlinson is a great artist and he colors the Dutchman’s moods with superb nuance, whether unnaturally enraged or bitter or effectively tender, but his voice is not in the best shape, and it offers little pleasure or authority. You might say the same about Erik Halfvarson’s Daland, a portrayal that properly covers both the sea captain’s eye for gold and odd lack of concern for his daughter; but an unfortunate wobble intrudes on sustained notes, reminding us how long this guy has been at sea. Kim Begley’s Erik is well delineated–although he also can wobble with the best of them–but his final aria seems more like a concert number than a spontaneous outpouring. Patricia Bardon’s Mary is nice and bossy; Peter Wedd’s Steersman is forgettable.

All ears in this performance are on soprano Nina Stemme, who is being hailed as the next great Brünnhilde and Isolde (she’s recorded the latter with Placido Domingo), and indeed she is very impressive. The voice is a good-sized instrument, with a particularly warm and vibrant middle and a grand, secure top. She’s a bit reserved here save for the loony climaxes of her Ballad, duet with Dutchman, and the very close of the opera–but this may be her “interpretation”. Let’s keep listening.

The translation by Christopher Cowell is no less believable than Wagner’s original German, and at any rate, it’s not all that easy to understand, save for the Erik of Begley, whose enunciation is veddy British indeed. The sonics, as hinted at above, are not very good, with off-mike voices (where’s Daland?) and some unnecessary murk elsewhere. In sum, Stemme definitely is worth hearing, and Tomlinson is never less than major, but there are better performances of this work around.

Robert Levine


Ever since Peter Moores’s Opera in English series was initiated 30 years ago with a version of the Ring cycle conducted by Reginald Goodall, Wagner has been neglected until this fine account of The Flying Dutchman. John Tomlinson, a favourite in the title role at Bayreuth, is masterful as the Dutchman, exploiting his wide tonal and expressive range. Opposite him as the self-sacrificing heroine, Senta, is Nina Stemme, who two years ago had such a resounding success as Isolde at Glyndebourne. Here she is fresh and true, outshining almost any rival on disc. The tenor, Kim Begley, is strongly cast as Erik, and though Eric Halfvarson as Senta’s father, Daland, has his moments of roughness, it is a characterful performance. Most striking of all is the richness of the recorded sound, vividly capturing the fine playing of the LPO under David Parry.

Edward Greenfield

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
604 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 614 MByte (flac)
Sung in English (translation by Christopher Cowell).