30 January 2015

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner – DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER (T. Stensvold, A. Kampe, C. Ventris, K. Youn, R. Thomas, J. Henschel; RCO Live RCO 14004)

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner - DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER (RCO Live RCO 14004)RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Der fliegende HolländerTerje Stensvold (Der Holländer), Anja Kampe (Senta), Christopher Ventris (Erik), Kwangchul Youn (Daland), Jane Henschel (Mary), Russell Thomas (Der Steuermann); Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, WDR Rundfunkchor Köln, NDR Chor; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Andris Nelsons, conductor [Recorded during concert performances in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, on 24 and 26 May 2013; RCO Live RCO 14004; 2 CD, 135:57; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​Few composers have been as successful at creating and perpetuating the impression of having emerged fully mature, Athena-like, from artistic infancy as Richard Wagner. To the observer acquainted with the scores that remain in the repertories of the world’s opera houses, it must indeed seem that the Wagner of Tristan und Isolde, Der Ring des Nibelungen, and Parsifal was at work even at the dawn of the composer’s career. Admittedly, unlike the works of almost all other composers but Monteverdi and Mozart [Puccini’s La fanciulla del West and complete Il trittico still are not performed as often as they deserve to be], all of Wagner’s mature operas remain in almost continuous circulation, but his early operas, those apt to be unknown to casual Wagnerians (and not without the composer’s tacit approval), only sporadically show the obvious handiwork of the genius of the Green Hill. Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi, all enjoyable works when appropriately performed, might justifiably be said to lack nothing needed to be typical grand operas except Auber’s, Halévy’s, or Meyerbeer’s signatures on their manuscripts. At its first performance in 1843, then, Der fliegende Holländer must have seemed incredibly radical even to those in the Dresden audience acquainted with the young Wagner’s style. In Der fliegende Holländer, Wagner embraced the ephemeral emotions of larger-than-life mythic characters that would guide the course of his creative development throughout his career, and his pioneering—but not altogether original, as is often suggested—use of leitmotivs took a major step towards Der Ring des Nibelungen. Celebration of the bicentennial of Wagner’s birth was the occasion for the concert performances in Amsterdam’s storied Concertgebouw that produced this recording on the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s house label, and a celebration it is: presented in clear, spacious sound with finer balance than has been achieved in many studio recordings, RCO Live’s performance of Der fliegende Holländer exults in the profuse musical and dramatic capacities of Wagner’s score. The quality that makes this performance of Der fliegende Holländer especially interesting, however, is its pragmatism. Rather than being a stilted, tumefied obeisance to a musical leviathan, this performance takes Der fliegende Holländer on its own terms, treating it as a living, sentient work, not a frigid artifact that must be admired only from a distance.

In presiding over this or any performance of Der fliegende Holländer, Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons faces the enormous weight of history. In addition to a legacy shaped by notable performances and recordings guided by virtually every conductor with an affinity for Wagner repertory, Der fliegende Holländer has the provenance of having been conducted at its Dresden première by Wagner himself, a circumstance repeated only in the first performance of Tannhäuser two years later. In this performance, Maestro Nelsons exhibits a thorough grasp of the young Wagner’s idiom, marshaling the musical forces at his disposal with clear-sighted focus on the opera’s lofty climaxes, but the most impactful element of his approach to the score is the way in which he grants meticulous attention to small details without distorting the overall structure of the opera. There is more bel canto in Der fliegende Holländer—indeed, in all of Wagner’s mature operas—than many Wagnerians are willing to admit, and Maestro Nelsons does not hesitate to caress phrases with Italianate warmth. He is fortunate to have in the players of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra an ensemble of musicians whose versatility enables them to bring stylistic pertinence to virtually any repertory. Employing the three-act construction with the Norwegian setting rather than the composer’s original concept with the drama playing out in Scotland in a single act, this performance finds the RCO on representatively excellent form. From the first chords of the Ouvertüre, crucial brass and woodwind lines are delivered with near-perfect intonation, and the string playing is as sinewy as the music requires without being ponderous. The same might be said of the performance as a whole: muscle is never lacking when it is needed, but passages that benefit from delicacy receive it.

The choristers of the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, NDR Chor [both directed by Martin Wright], and WDR Rundfunkchor Köln [led by David Marlow] sing sonorously whether portraying Senta’s friends, the hearty Norwegian sailors, or the Holländer’s eerie crew. In their seagoing duties, Wagner gave the chorus quite a lot of exclamations of ‘Hojoje,’ ‘Johohoe,’ and the like, and it is to the choristers’ credit that these do not sound as silly in this performance as they often do. The tenors are troubled by the tessitura, which often suspends them in the passaggio with frequent top Fs and Gs, but they cope without embarrassing themselves. In the Norwegian sailors’ ‘Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer,’ the gentlemen sound appropriately weary of the sea, and the ladies’ singing of the Spinning Chorus, ‘Summ’ und brumm’, du gutes Rädchen,’ is charmingly chatty. Then, however, they respond to Senta’s ballad with bracing immediacy in ‘Ach, wo weilt sie, die dir Gottes Engel einst könnte zeigen?’ The Norwegian sailors’ drinking song, ‘Steuermann! Laß die Wacht,’ is raucous, and the choruses’ voicing of the Holländer’s crew’s ‘Johohoe! Johohoe! Hoe! Hoe! Hoe!’ is chilling. There is audible diligence in every line sung by the choristers; a commitment not just to producing pleasing sounds but, equally importantly, to believably enacting their parts in the drama, as well.

The presence of American mezzo-soprano Jane Henschel as Mary is the very definition of luxury casting. A true artist can make the smallest of parts significant, and Ms. Henschel makes more of Mary than almost any other recorded exponent of the rôle. Her interactions with Senta and the girls in the first minutes of Act Two are playfully scolding but genuinely concerned, and she creates a character who seems to live vicariously through Senta. Her singing of ‘Du böses Kind, wenn du nicht spinnst’ is both vivid and secure, traits that few singers have brought to Mary’s music on records. Moreover, Ms. Henschel’s timbre is always attractive, and she heightens the apprehension generated by the drama by sounding like an unnerved confidante rather than a superannuated duenna.

Having rising American tenor Russell Thomas on hand as the Steuermann is also an example of the care with which these concert performances of Der fliegende Holländer were prepared. In his song, ‘Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer mein Mädel, bin dir nah,’ Mr. Thomas sings splendidly, rising to the top B♭ with ringing freedom. Aside from a few lapses in pitch, which were likely results of the difficulty of placing tones against the din of Wagner’s orchestra in full cry, his performance is striking. Like Ms. Henschel, Mr. Thomas sets a new, exalted standard in a rôle that has endured much poor singing on stage and on records.

With extensive experience in a wide repertory under his belt, Korean bass Kwangchul Youn has grown into a cogent Wagnerian. As Daland in this performance, he starts uncertainly but quickly gains confidence as the performance progresses. In ‘Kein Zweifel! Sieben Meilen fort trieb uns der Sturm vom sichren Port,’ the repeated Cs, Ds, and E♭s at the top of the staff tax him, but the voice has appealing gravitas. In the duet with the Holländer, Mr. Youn evinces paternal affection for Senta in ‘Wie? Hör ich recht? Mein Tochter sein Weib?’ The subsequent scene with Senta, ‘Mein Kind, du siehst mich auf der Schwelle,’ inspires him to singing of pointed intensity, and he gives a firm, well-phrased account of his aria, ‘Mögst du, mein Kind, den fremden Mann willkommen heißen,’ handling it as a moment in the drama rather than a concerted number. Mr. Youn voices ‘Verzeiht! Mein Volk hält draußen sich nicht mehr’ in the trio with Senta and the Holländer with feeling, and he imparts a sense of understanding that his daughter is lost to him even before the opera’s final scene.

The amalgamation of heft and finesse in Wagner’s music for Erik, Senta’s rejected suitor, complicates casting the rôle. The traditional tendencies have been either to give the part to a Heldentenor whose brute strength bruises the music or to cast a lighter, more lyric voice that cannot compete with the power of the orchestra. British tenor Christopher Ventris possesses a voice of logical proportions for Erik, and he sings the part capably without completely conquering the music’s difficulties. His delivery of ‘Bleib’, Senta! Bleib’ nur einen Augenblick!’ is ardent, and his ‘Senta! Laß dir vertrau’n’ conveys the sting of unrequited love. Mr. Ventris gives Erik’s cavatina, ‘Willst jenes Tags du nicht dich mehr entsinnen,’ a zealous reading, negotiating the turns and top B♭ with impressive composure. His top notes are generally solid, but the timbre sometimes takes on an unpleasant stridency. He is ultimately a skillful but not an ideal Erik, but this is a part in which honorable efforts are particularly commendable.

German soprano Anja Kampe is one of the world’s preeminent Sieglindes in Die Walküre and, as she proved at Glyndebourne, an unconventional but unusually sensual Isolde. With the exceptions of Marjorie Lawrence, Kirsten Flagstad, Astrid Varnay, and Dame Gwyneth Jones, who also excelled as Brünnhilde, Senta has most often been best served by Sieglinde voices. Ms. Kampe is thus as natural a fit for the part as might be found today. Still, the voice that is not challenged by Senta’s music has not yet been heard, and Ms. Kampe faces some of the most murderous vocal lines in opera. In Senta’s ballad, ‘Johohoe! Traft ihr das Schiff im Meere an,’ she manages the difficult intervals imposingly, and she brings great warmth to the section marked più lento by Wagner, ‘Doch, daß der arme Mann noch Erlösung fände auf Erden,’ Her singing sizzles with the fire demanded by the composer in the allegro con fuoco, ‘Ich sei’s, die dich durch ihre Treu’ erlöse!’ The exposed top A in Senta’s duet with Erik, ‘Er sucht much auf,’ soars, and she rises to the top As and Bs in the duet with the Holländer with abandon. The opera’s final scene is a formidable test for a soprano, and it is one that Ms. Kampe passes with voice and dramatic instincts to spare. With her poetic phrasing of ‘Wohl kenn’ ich Weibes heil’ge Pflichten,’ the top B launched heroically, she lends her Senta the aura of romanticized tragedy. The radiance of her ‘Von mächt’gem Zauber überwunden reißt mich’s zu seiner Rettung fort’ is complemented by the potency of her ‘Preis’ deinen Engel und sein Gebot! Hier steh’ ich, treu dir bis zum Tod!’ The final top A and B♭ are hurled out defiantly: this Senta does not accept her destiny: she seizes it. Vocally, Ms. Kampe sings Senta with far fewer compromises than many sopranos have found necessary, but it is the histrionic sovereignty of her interpretation that lingers in the memory.

Sixty-nine years old at the time of the concert performances that yielded this recording, Norwegian baritone Terje Stensvold is a stern, commanding Holländer. There are instances in which loosening of the singer’s vibrato and approximations of pitch are evident, but Mr. Stensvold gives a more durable performance than many singers half his age might manage. He energetically constructs an imaginative account of ‘Die Frist ist um,’ traversing the aria’s wide range with enthusiasm. The top F in ‘Wie oft in Meeres tiefsten Schlund stürtz’ ich voll Sehnsucht mich hinab’ is a trial, but the zeal of his delivery of ‘Durch Sturm und bösen Wind verschlagen’ is rousing. Mr. Stensvold imparts suggestions of burgeoning tenderness in the duet with Senta, ‘Wie aus der Ferne längst vergang’ner Zeiten spricht dieses Mädchens Bild zu mir.’ His vehement utterance of ‘Verloren! Acht! verloren! Ewig verlor’nes Heil!’ and ‘Erfahre das Geschick, von dem ich dich bewahr’!’ is grandiose, and his ‘Du kennst mich nicht’ explodes with frustration and disappointment. Mr. Stensvold portrays a pessimistic Holländer who clings to hope of redemption despite his distrust of humanity. The voice is not always projected without effort, but it meets the requirements of the music with authority.

171 years after the opera’s first performance, it is easy both to overestimate the extent to which Der fliegende Holländer ushered in Richard Wagner’s artistic maturity as if by magic and to underestimate the quality of the score when considering it alongside the epic music dramas of the last fifteen years of the composer’s career. There is validity to the assertion that Der fliegende Holländer is a good introduction to Wagner’s singular gifts for those listeners for whom the later, considerably longer works are hard going, but Der fliegende Holländer is not—and should not be—‘light Wagner.’ RCO Live’s recording brings together an excellent cast, impeccably-prepared choruses, a responsive conductor, and one of the world’s great orchestras in a performance of searching zeal. This is a Der fliegende Holländer recommendable to novice Wagnerians, but it should also be heard by those curmudgeonly aficionados who argue that all truly momentous Wagner singers are dead and buried.

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner - DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER (RCO Live RCO 14004)Traft ihr das Schiff: Anja Kampe as Senta in Tim Albery’s production of Der fliegende Holländer at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2011 [Photo by Mike Hoban, © The Royal Opera House]