Der fliegende Holländer

Woldemar Nelsson
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
June 1985
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
DalandMatti Salminen
SentaLisbeth Balslev
ErikRobert Schunk
MaryAnny Schlemm
Der Steuermann DalandsGraham Clark
Der HolländerSimon Estes
Stage directorHarry Kupfer
Set designerPeter Sykora
TV directorBrian Large
Mostly Opera

This DVD contains one of the true classics among modern Wagner productions: Harry Kupfer´s production of The Flying Dutchman from the Bayreuth Festival 1978-85. Indeed it is one of the most imaginative, fascinating and well-conceived stagings of any opera available.

First of all Harry Kupfer´s core concept is simple as well as original, and is furthermore well in agreement with Richard Wagners text without having to rely excessively on the imaginative powers of the audience: The entire drama of the Flying Dutchman simply takes place in Senta´s imagination.

The scene is set in a claustrophobic and traditional Norwegian fishing community of the 19th century. The dreamerish Senta clearly does not belong here among these down-to-earth people.

A spiral staircase with a window on top overlooks the stage, and already during the prelude the concept is clear: Senta´s fascination by a picture of the Flying Dutchman on the wall slowly develops into a trance. When her father subsequently arrives with a wealthy suitor, in Senta´s trance-like state she believes this to be the legendary Dutchman, while it in fact it is an ordinary man. The imaginary Dutchman as well as his ship lifted by two giant hands slowly emerges from the background, and the duet between him and Senta is sung with the Dutchman firmly in the background, as if he was not really there.

The masked and white-clad townspeople of the imaginary wedding are subsequently swallowed by the Dutchman´s crew. In the end Senta, in her exalted state believes to save the Dutchman by following him into eternity – in reality she commits suicide by jumping out the window next to the spiral staircase and is found lifeless on the ground by the silent onlooking community. A dreamer who did not belong there.

The concept works almost to perfection and Harry Kupfer´s trademark, the detailed direction of the singers, cast as much for their acting as their singing capabilities is not betrayed. Though 30 years old, this is still highly engaging music theater, though the production is slightly dusty, especially compared to Kupfer´s later staging from 2001 at the Berlin State Opera, centered around the same concept.

The singers are virtually ideal: Lisbeth Balslev convinces entirely as the neurotic, dreamerish Senta opposite Simon Estes noble Dutchman. Manfred Schenk is also well cast in the smaller part of Erik. The young Matti Salminen is an outstanding and authoritative Daland. While Woldemar Nelsson may not provide the most imaginative reading, it does not detract significantly from the overall picture either.

For those wanting a DVD of The Flying Dutchman, this is the one to have. The only competition on DVD is the outdoor production with Franz Grundheber, Hildegard Behrens and Matti Salminen from the Savonlinna Festival (also recommended) and the Kaslik/Sawallisch studio production with MacIntyre/Ligendza (not recommended, as I find it oldfashioned, dusty and unengaging).

The bottom line (on a scale from 1-5, 3=average):

Lisbeth Balslev: 4
Simon Estes: 4
Matti Salminen: 5
Manfred Schenk: 4
Kupfer´s staging: 5
Woldemar Nelsson: 4

Overall impression: 5


Kupfer’s Der Fliegende Holländer

I was really impressed when I first watched the DVD version of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer recorded at Bayreuth in 1985. It’s been some time since I last watched it so another look seemed in order. The production, directed by Harry Kupfer debuted in 1978 to both applause and brickbats. The concept is that the Dutchman exists only in Senta’s imagination. She is fixated on the Dutchman as her route out of the repressed bourgeois environment she is trapped. It’s a tormented, even hysterical, version of Senta that finds a fine interpreter in Lisbeth Baltslev. Kupfer reinforces this idea of Senta by having her on stage all the time. During the overture she retreats to a sort of cage at the top of a staircase with her precious picture of the Dutchman which she will hang onto throughout the drama. She will remain in this cage high to one side of the stage watching the action below her throughout the first act.

It’s a very strong first act musically and visually The Dutchman’s ship makes a spectacular entrance and the finger like timbers of the bow open up to show the Dutchman chained in a crucifixion pose. Simon Estes as the Dutchman is suitably elemental. His singing and acting have a frightening intensity without ever becoming unmusical. Matti Salminen’s Dahland is perfectly adequate and conveys the grasping bourgeois rather well.

Act 2, of course, opens in the Spinning Hall. Anny Schlemm’s Mary exemplifies the dull conventionality of the place. We are in the world of Strindberg or maybe Babette’s Feast. The intensity of Balslev’s performance cuts right through this. Johohoe! Truft ihr das Schiff im Meere an is as eerie as it is powerful. Against this obsession the rather dull Erik of Robert Schunk is doomed from the start. Things warm up with the arrival of Dahland and the Dutchman. Salminen is in very good voice with Mögst du mein Kind, den fremden Mann willkommen heißen. Senta is pinched looking or frightened almost throughout this scene. There is great ambiguity while the Dutchman sings Wie aus der Ferne längst versangner Zeiten. The Dutchman of Senta’s imagination sings from the gorgeous fantasy hold of his ship while the shadowy figure who arrived with Dahland is still on stage. Senta is slow to buy into what is happening but she finally dissolves into a state that is more madness than delight.

Act 3 opens with Senta watching her own wedding feast from the cage. The townspeople and Dahland’s crew are almost as unnatural as the Dutchman’s. It’s quite chilling and sinister all through until the Dutchman’s crew drive everyone off stage leaving Senta alone for her confrontation with Erik. Then we get the big scene where the Dutchman, chained up again in the infernal version of his ship, thinks that Senta has betrayed him and leaves her.

This is, obviously, crucial to the plot but it has never really made much sense to me in a normal interpretation. Here it does. This obsessed Senta needs to be “faithful unto death” not to have a happy ending. It’s equally apt that her suicide is just that. There is no hint of redemption for her or the Dutchman. It’s the end. The people turn their backs on her corpse leaving only Erik, in despair, still with her.

So dramatically it works as a piece held together by really intense performances by Balslev and Estes and, lest I forget, Woldemar Nelsson conducts and keeps things moving along briskly. At times the orchestral playing is quite thrilling and the chorus is excellent too.
A couple of other things about the production are worth pointing out. Although the booklet sets the scenes out in the conventional three acts it is actually played through (as I understand Wagner intended and as it was played at the COC a couple of years ago). Scene changes are dynamic and slick. There’s some real stage craft here. It’s also very dark, as I recall most 1970s productions being. This makes on stage detail hard to pick up and, I’m sure, affected the video direction.

This production was directed for video by Brian Large (surprise!) and it seems to have gone straight to video with no TV broadcast. That said it looks like it was directed for the “small screen” which one might expect in 1985. This is problematic given the crucial role of the spectating Senta, as most of the time she is out of shot. Large tries to compensate for this with superpositions, fades and dissolves and is fairly successful. All in all, I think he gives us as good a picture of what Kupfer put on stage as one could reasonably expect.

Picture quality is a bit soft grained as you might expect for the time and it’s 4:3. Sound options are PCM stereo or DTS 5.1 which is a post process of the original stereo capture. It’s very good indeed. There are English, French, German, Spanish and Chinese subtitle options. There’s nothing much in the way of bonus material but the booklet has a full track listing and an informative essay by Erich Rappl.

All in all I think this disc can be highly recommended. It’s a landmark production, well executed on stage and captured for DVD remarkably well for its era.

Forum Opéra

Ne jouons pas aux nostalgiques, mais tout de même, quand on songe que ce Vaisseau Fantôme alterna le temps de trois étés avec le Ring de Boulez et Chéreau, cela fait quelque peu rêver sur le niveau artistique du Festival de Bayreuth de ces années-là…

Les esprits chagrins trouveront la partie musicale oubliable, pourtant – est-ce l’influence de l’image ? (nous ne le pensons pas, pour avoir aussi longuement écouté le seul CD) – , nous la trouvons pour notre part superbe, à commencer – cela ne surprendra personne – par des choeurs et un orchestre somptueux (quels cors !).

La direction de Wodelmar Nelsson est épique et met parfaitement en valeur la dureté de la version originale de l’ouvrage (les 3 actes s’enchaînent sans interruption, le thème de la rédemption ne conclut pas l’ouverture ni la fin de l’opéra qui se termine par de violents accords).

La distribution, superlative, est d’une grande homogénéité.

Simon Estes est à son meilleur dans le rôle du Hollandais Volant : timbre prenant, ampleur de la voix, solidité sur les différents registres, incarnation sobre mais d’une grande force. Lisbeth Baslev possède des qualités similaires, une voix superbe qui couvre les différents registres avec la même assurance, la même solidité. Son duo avec le Hollandais est particulièrement puissant.

Daland est sans doute l’un des meillleurs rôles de Matti Salminen. On n’a plus à vanter les qualités de ce chanteur impressionnant. Là encore, timbre, puissance, assurance, le tout associé à une “bonhomie” de l’incarnation parfaitement adaptée au personnage, font absolument merveille. Robert Schunk campe un Erik fruste et sans grande délicatesse, mais après tout, n’est-ce pas là ce que doit être ce personnage de chasseur dont le drame qui se joue semble le dépasser et qui ne sait pas trouver les mots pour reconquérir Senta ? A ce titre, nous le trouvons parfait. Le Pilote du jeune Graham Clark est lui aussi sonore et installe un personnage moins falot que ceux que l’on a l’habitude d’entendre parfois. On pourra trouver que l’ensemble manque parfois de finesse, mais l’énergie qui se dégage de cette interprétation est d’une force qui emporte tout, telle une tempête en haute mer, et convient parfaitement à cette version d’un seul tenant.

Même force dans la vision scénique de Harry Kupfer qui installe le personnage de Senta (et non celui du Hollandais) au centre de tout. Présente sur scène en permanence, Senta vit toute l’histoire qui se déroule sous nos yeux en serrant le portrait du Hollandais dans ses bras comme s’il était la clé de l’évasion d’un monde dont elle se sent prisonnière, un monde étouffant, étriqué, fait de rigueur et de morale. Les femmes qui entourent Senta sont toutes plus guindées et inhibées les unes que les autres et sont dominées par le personnage de Mary, d’un hiératisme effrayant, qui trouve ici une réelle consistance. La vision de cette société renfermée sur elle-même vire au cauchemar dans le dernier tableau où tous arborent des visages de morts-vivants. Terrifiant. La jeune fille fuit aussi Erik, son fiancé gauche et pataud, ou même son père dont elle refuse l’étreinte lorsqu’il revient avec le Hollandais.

Senta se réfugie donc dans un rêve symbolisé par ce portrait d’un inconnu et par une passerelle dont elle ne descend que pour affronter ces êtres qui l’enferment davantage dans son rêve. Le point culminant en est la rencontre avec le Hollandais, qui apparaît dans un vaisseau de fleurs très kitsch, comme le prince charmant issu d’un livre de contes pour petites filles. Senta ne sait distinguer la réalité de ses rêves, et même cet homme que lui présente son père, elle ne veut le voir tel qu’il est mais tel qu’elle le phantasme. Aussi, dans le magnifique duo du deuxième acte a-t-on deux Hollandais sur scène : le “vrai”, et le “faux”. On ne peut être que fasciné par une telle pertinence et une telle intelligence scénique.

Le rêve se mue en cauchemar (l’admirable scène des marins du troisième acte) puis tourne à la folie. Senta reste insensible aux derniers appels du réel, incarné par Erik ou son père. Voyant son rêve s’enfuir, elle se rue en haut de sa passerelle et se jette dans le vide. Nous retrouvons son cadavre dans la rue du village, et dans un dernier effet scénique, les volets des maisons se referment violemment, symbole percutant d’une société aveugle et muette à tout ce qui n’est pas dans l’ordre moral qu’elle s’est fixé.

On pourrait beaucoup dire encore de cette mise en scène confondante d’autant plus convaincante qu’elle est parfaitement réglée (changements de décor, éclairages impeccables), et servie par des chanteurs totalement investis dans leur personnage. On ne peut oublier le visage halluciné de névrosée de Lisbeth Baslev, il nous hante longtemps encore après la vision de ce DVD indispensable à tout wagnérien.

Pierre-Emmanuel LEPHAY

Audiophile Audition

Told from the point of view of a demented Senta (Lisbeth Balslev), this production of Wagner’s Fliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman) is a Gothic horror story rather than a tale of redemption. In this interpretation, the entire plot is made to hinge on Senta’s fevered imagination. Once she has caught the fallen portrait of the accursed Dutchman (Simon Estes), she is lost to the real world despite Erik’s unceasing entreaties. In Act 2, Daland (Matti Salminen), her father, introduces her to a shadowy figure in a black fedora, who is meant to be the Dutchman, but we never see this character’s face and he doesn’t sing. Instead, Simon Estes shows up ensconced in a flowery cocoon, so that in effect there are two suitors on the stage, a real one (in the hat) and the imaginary one (Simon Estes). This double vision is disorienting and deviates sharply from Wagner’s true intentions. Ultimately, this production seriously distorts what is meant to be a simple tale of a haunted seaman and the woman who loves him. Rather than redeem the Dutchman, Senta throws herself out a window and the villagers view her crumpled body with complete indifference.

Aside from all this, this production does have some merit. The sets are interesting, with the Dutchman’s ship portrayed as a skeletal hull that opens to reveal two huge hands. Balslev’s Senta is appropriately intense, with good chest support and a full, round voice that whirls like the spinners’ wheels. Her higher notes are a bit problematic but tolerable. Throughout Act 1 Estes presents the Dutchman as a powerful, angry, and tortured soul who frightens Senta, which doesn’t invite compassion for his plight. In Act 2, however, he is capable of tenderness, and his dreamy pleas are quite touching. Salminen is a threatening and imposing Daland, with delightfully clear tones. Schunk is a serviceable Erik, and Clark as the Steuermann is wonderfully musical. The conducting is far more interesting than in the Finnish production (the only other Holländer available on DVD). The sound here is great, but the video is twenty years old and too dark. Novices might consider the other available DVD, by Kultur (Savonlinna Opera Festival, 2005, conducted by Leif Segerstam), which although soporific, features Hildegard Behrens as a wonderful Senta and Salminen as a powerful Daland.

Dalia Geffen | Published on January 22, 2006

Corliss Phillabaum

Originally created in 1978, this staging of Der fliegende Holländer was regularly revived over the years and finally filmed in 1985. Director Harry Kupfer’s approach to the opera was a radical departure from tradition and made Senta the central figure, rather than the Dutchman. The entire story was depicted as Senta’s fantasies which emerged from her obsession with the portrait of the legendary seaman. Danish soprano Lisbeth Balslev, who played Senta throughout the run of the production, was present onstage continuously from the first notes of the overture to the end of Act Three, a true marathon since the production followed Wagner’s original intention and was played without any intermission. In the theatre she was visible to the audience at all times and although the video doesn’t show her continuously, video director Brian Large builds in frequent reminders of her presence through full stage views, closeups, and overlaying her image at times on the action.

In every respect this daring production is a compelling musical experience. Balslev is a vivid actress and sings the role with power and beauty. (Since the recording preceded the opening of the 1985 Festival, it was made over a number of days. As a result there are no signs of fatigue in the final scenes.) Senta’s idealized fantasy Dutchman is equally impressive as played by bass-baritone Simon Estes with commanding physical presence and dark, rock-solid sound. Daland was one of Matti Salminen’s signature roles and it is striking how his characterization here responds to Kupfer’s interpretation and contrasts with his playing of the role at the 1989 Savonlinna Festival, which is also available on DVD. Tenor Robert Schunk manages to bring considerable vocal beauty to Erik’s music and plays the role as a much more sympathetic character than usual. Woldemar Nelsson shapes the score powerfully and the sound quality of the DVD is strong and clear, if a trifle bass-shy. Kupfer’s staging in Peter Sykora’s striking settings is dramatically exciting and a visual feast. During the Overture the women of the Norwegian port are gathered in the community spinning room during a wild storm, and when the portrait of the Dutchman suddenly falls from the wall, Senta picks it up and cradles it in her arms, as she continues to do throughout the opera. At the end of the Overture there is a stunning scene shift to the cove at Sandwike where Daland’s ship has taken shelter from the storm. When the Dutchman’s ship arrives, its life-sized prow looms up in the background and then opens like two giant hands to reveal the Dutchman chained inside. His chains fall away as another seven years have passed and he can once again come onshore to seek his salvation. Senta, on a platform high above the stage on one side is a witness to the entire act before she descends to join the action in the second scene. Within Kupfer’s concept, every detail in Wagner’s libretto and score is given a precise representation as seen in Senta’s obsessed mind.

This is a truly imaginative interpretation of the opera, brilliantly performed and staged with remarkable stagecraft. Highly recommended

Michael Richter


Highly idiosyncratic and problematic live staging. Concepts that work for you will be deemed illuminating as well as effective; others will appear to be conceits or may confuse you enough to distract from the music. Senta’s continuous presence on stage may reflect any of a number of directorial ideas, but as often as not detracts from the musical focus. In contrast, the images of the ship in divine hands and of the chained Dutchman are striking, effective, and consonant with the musical ideas.


Nelsson conducts rather reticently, never asserting the score. The orchestra is solid and effective. Estes is excellent, less subtle and more sonorous than the average Dutchman, but fully comfortable in the rôle. Salminen is no less in command as Daland, balancing Estes dramatically, though not vocally distinguishable from him. Balslev is committed and accurate, but her Senta lacks the other-world components of her personality and her music. Both tenors are competent—perhaps all that one can expect in those parts today. Choral work is surprisingly imprecise, though not enough to distract seriously.


Video and audio are superb throughout. Images are intense without appearing to be exaggerated. Lighting is excellent, and appears to have needed no augmentation over a normal stage presentation. Camera work is generally good, but with some distractingly wide shots where the natural focus is limited; the cause may be the desire to catch unique aspects of the production. This recording should be seen at least once, even if it is unlikely to become a favorite reading.

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720×480, 2.7 Mbit/s, 2.5 GByte, 4:3 (MPEG-4)