22 May 2015

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner – DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER (H. Janssen, K. Flagstad, L. Weber, M. Lorenz, M. Jarred, K. Ostertag; Immortal Performances IPCD 1051-2)

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner - DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER (Immortal Performances IPCD 1051-2)RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Der fliegende Holländer—Herbert Janssen (Der Holländer), Kirsten Flagstad (Senta), Ludwig Weber (Daland), Max Lorenz (Erik), Mary Jarred (Mary), Karl Ostertag (Steuermann); Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Fritz Reiner, conductor [Recorded in performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, UK, on 11 June 1937, with supplemental material necessary to fill gaps in the original broadcast recording; Immortal Performances IPCD 1051-2; 2 CDs, 132:48; Available from Immortal Performances]

The Royal Opera House Coronation Season of International Opera mounted in celebration of the 1937 enthroning of King George VI and his consort, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, opened on 19 April with a performance of Verdi's Otello with Giovanni Martinelli in the title rôle, Fernanda Ciana as Desdemona, and Cesare Formichi as Iago. During the course of the subsequent eleven weeks, the operatic homage to the royal couple encompassed performances of Borodin's Prince Igor and Bizet's Carmen with Eduard Kandl as Igor and Escamillo; Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, in which Vanni-Marcoux bade farewell to London as Golaud; Donizetti's Don Pasquale with Mafalda Favero as Norina and Dino Borgioli as Ernesto; Dukas's Ariane et Barbe-bleue with Germaine Lubin as Ariane; Gluck's Alceste with Lubin in the name part and Orphée et Eurydice with Dame Maggie Teyte as Eurydice; Euguene Goossens's Don Juan de Mañara, given its world première with Lawrence Tibbett as Don Juan; Puccini's Tosca with Gina Cigna as the eponymous diva, Martinetlli as Cavaradossi, and Tibbett, appearing for the first time at Covent Garden (and also alternating with Formichi as Iago in Otello), as Scarpia and Turandot with Dame Eva Turner, Licia Albanese, and Martinelli; Verdi's Aida with Cigna, Ebe Stignani, and Martinelli and Falstaff with a fantastic cast including Formichi, Maria Caniglia, and Albanese; and Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer with Herbert Janssen and Kirsten Flagstad, Tristan und Isolde with Lauritz Melchior and Flagstad, Der Ring des Nibelungen with Flagstad as Brünnhilde under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Parsifal with Torsten Ralf and Kerstin Thorborg. By any standard, it was an extraordinary season, rivaled in Covent Garden's history—indeed, in the history of opera in the modern era—only by the fourteen-week season presented on the occasion of the 1911 coronation of George V. Even in the context of such musical excellence, the season's Wagner productions were remarkable, none more so than Charles Moor's staging of Der fliegende Holländer. The production united Kölner baritone Herbert Janssen (1892 – 1965), then starting his second decade on Covent Garden's roster, as the Holländer, Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad (1895 – 1962), still new to Covent Garden (she débuted at the Royal Opera House as Isolde on 18 May 1936: though she was ill with a nasty head cold on her first night, she received fifteen curtain calls at the performance's end), as Senta, Düsseldorf-born tenor Max Lorenz as Erik, and Viennese bass Ludwig Weber (1899 – 1974) as Daland, under the direction of Fritz Reiner (1888 – 1963), also a recent Covent Garden débutant. [His début was in Parsifal with Ralf and Frida Leider on 29 April 1936: he also conducted Flagstad's début and the three subsequent performances of Tristan und Isolde in May 1936.] If there were an operatic Eden, Kirsten Flagstad would surely be its Eve: from her intoxicating example Wagner singing in the later Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries was born. The 11 June broadcast of Der fliegende Holländer is rightly a famous performance. Now, owing to the painstaking restoration and conservation work of Richard Caniell and Immortal Performances, the listener in 2015 can truly hear rather than merely perceiving the performance’s importance. The current Queen could hope for no finer tributes to the musical heritage of the opera company under her patronage and to a tremendously important time in her and her parents’ lives.

Following accomplished but stylistically uncertain early efforts, Der fliegende Holländer was the score in which the twenty-nine-year-old Wagner found his mature voice, a fact that he acknowledged in his sprawling 1851 manifesto Eine Mittheilung an meine Freunde. The Leitmotifs in Der fliegende Holländer are primarily dramatic devices rather than the psychological acuities in musical form that they would become in Der Ring des Nibelungen. The undistorted sound quality achieved by Caniell’s remastering of this performances enables contemplation of the standards of Wagner performance at Covent Garden in Fritz Reiner’s first seasons on the company’s podium. Compelled by the necessity of filling gaps left by portions of the 11 June performance that have not survived, Caniell seamlessly integrated material from other performances: unlike the proprietors of many labels, Caniell provides detailed information about the sources of the excerpts used as patches. The Overture and a few choral interjections before Erik’s entrance in Act Three are sourced from the Metropolitan Opera broadcast performance of 30 December 1950, in which Reiner presided over Hans Hotter’s Holländer and Astrid Varnay’s Senta (Ljuba Welitsch was the originally-scheduled Senta). The continuity of Weber’s Daland and Karl Ostertag’s (1903 – 1979) Steuermann is preserved by using brief passages from a 1936 Munich broadcast conducted by Carl Leonhardt. It was impossible to replicate the scene for Senta and Erik in Act Two with a recording featuring Flagstad and Lorenz, so the scene’s omission sensibly was not rectified. Most importantly, Caniell has corrected and equalized the pitch bar by bar, producing a recording that is a faithful document of how the performance must have sounded in the theatre (or over the wireless) in 1937, in addition to providing extensive, educating rather than pedantic liner notes that provide the listener with fresh insights and a sense of context whether hearing this performance for the first or the fiftieth time.

Under Reiner’s baton, the Covent Garden chorus and orchestra give an invigorating account of Wagner’s score. Neither the choral singing nor the orchestral playing is perfect: the earnestness of their efforts notwithstanding, the choristers often sound stressed by their music, and the instrumentalists make enough mistakes to remind listeners that even in such legendary settings musicians are fallible creatures. Still, the positive effects of what was surely a rigorous regimen of preparation are audible in the work of both chorus and orchestra. Reiner’s pacing of the performance is surprising, especially when compared to the familiar 1950 MET broadcast performance. The expected thrust is present throughout the performance, but there are scenes in which the conducting evinces a profoundly poetic wistfulness. The casts of the Covent Garden and MET performances are very different, of course, but it seems unlikely that this alone accounts for the marked dissimilarities between the two broadcasts. Whatever factors contributed to the nuances of Reiner’s interpretation of the score in London, the results are magical. Owing in large part to the support that they receive from the conductor, the singers are able to create characters who are credible as genuine individuals rather than typical Wagnerian archetypes, and the drama is engagingly visceral, not coldly symbolic. An erotic electricity crackles in the orchestra when the Holländer and Senta interact in Act Two, and the opera’s finale ultimately does not seem—as is usually the case—like an early study for Isolde’s Liebestod and Brünnhilde’s Schlussgesang but like the desperate action of a young woman consumed by a love too great to be sacrificed to conventionality. Reiner’s approach introduces an element of inevitability into the drama that makes the characters’ decisions all the more engrossing. These people are destined to collide, but Daland chooses to offer Senta to the Holländer as a bride in exchange for treasure, and Senta chooses to reject Erik’s warnings and join her fate to the Holländer’s. Her choice is not death: it is merely to follow the man she loves into his world, the eternal sea. Perhaps it would be hyperbolic rhetoric to term this performance visionary, but Reiner’s conducting of this performance conveys a quixotic but very specific exegesis. The keystone of this Fliegende Holländer is introspection. As a manager of musical personnel, Reiner is known to have been an exacting, sometimes intractable figure, but as the manager of this performance he displays perceptiveness unique in both his and the opera’s discographies.

Despite the participation of titans of Wagner repertory, Covent Garden’s Coronation Season Fliegende Holländer had as unified an ensemble cast as has ever been heard in the opera on recordings. Singing Mary, Senta’s nurse, Yorkshire-born contralto Mary Jarred (1899 – 1993) is a lovingly maternal but vivid presence, delivering ‘Ei, fleißig! Fleißig, wie sie spinnen!’ energetically and dotingly. Ostertag shames a number of today’s exponents of his rôle by truly singing the Steuermann’s music. His account of ‘Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer’ is a model of intelligent phrasing.

With the duet for Senta and Erik missing from the recording of Act Two of the 1937 broadcast and no suitable replacement being known to exist, there is only Erik’s scene in Act Three by which to judge Lorenz’s degree of comfort in the music. It is an awkwardly-written rôle, virtually a holdover from Weber’s Der Freischütz or Euryanthe. In the opening of the scene, Lorenz voices ‘Was mußt ich hören! Gott, was mußt ich sehn!’ with frenzied intensity. Reiner sets a measured tempo for the Kavatine, ‘Willst jenes Tags du nicht dich mehr entsinnen,’ enabling the singer to accurately place tones in the upper register and execute the ornaments gracefully. Lorenz sings the top As and B♭ and turns very elegantly indeed. Unlike many Eriks, the character portrayed by Lorenz does not badger Senta: he is none too happy about the path that she chooses, but his concern is that of affection rather than possessiveness. Musically, Lorenz’s voice was an ideal instrument for the rôle: commanding the resources to project over Wagner’s orchestrations, he also had the full range and the sweetness of tone demanded by the part. In this performance, he earns adulation even with nearly half of his music missing.

When Wagner’s libretto suggests that Senta is still in the full flush of youth, why is her father so often depicted as an old man in various stages of decrepitude? Visually, audiences in large theatres may well benefit from the generation gap between father and daughter being made artificially wide, but Wagner’s music for Daland benefits tremendously from youthful, virile singing like that offered by Weber in this performance. Without question, his was one of the finest bass voices of the Twentieth Century, but this Daland is notable for the lightness of both timbre and characterization. In the Act One duet with the Holländer, Weber’s singing of ‘Wie? Hört ich recht?’ is brawny but not unduly heavy. At the time of this performance, he seems to have been capable of doing almost anything he wanted to do with his voice, and his singing of ‘Mein Kind, du siehst mich auf der Schwelle’ and Daland’s aria ‘Mögst du, mein Kind, den fremden Mann’ in Act Two is poised and powerful. His lines in the trio with Senta and Holländer are shaped with dramatic alertness, beginning with a bristling pronouncement of ‘Verzeiht! Mein Volk hält draußen sich nicht meht.’ In Weber’s performance, Daland is his own man and less obviously a prototype for Pogner, König Marke, or Gurnemanz. As Weber portrays him in this performance, Daland is far more winsome than he often is: for once, he is not a figure who seems to have soured in the briny salt air.

From her first note, Flagstad’s Senta is precisely what the label promises—an immortal performance. After seeming to actually enjoy her volleys of ‘Ho jo hoe’ and the like, she phrases the Act Two Ballade, ‘Traft ihr das Schiff im Meere an,’ with unerring control and complete confidence. Her lines in Senta’s duet with the Holländer, launched by ‘Versank ich jetzt in wunderbares Träumen,’ are phrased with imagination and individuality. ‘Wohl kenn ich Weibes heil'ge Pflichten’ is sung with girlish abandon, though there is nothing dainty about Flagstad’s top Bs. The soprano’s upper register likely gains most from Caniell’s stabilization of pitch: aside from a few top notes that sound slightly shrill, Flagstad’s voice is very flatteringly reproduced. Like Dame Joan Sutherland’s early broadcasts, this Fliegende Holländer likely gives a truer notion of the amplitude of the voice than almost any of Flagstad’s too-few studio recordings. The fullness of the middle octave of the voice is surpassed by no other Senta on disc, and those who allege that Flagstad’s singing was matronly throughout her career surely have not heard this release. In fact, her singing in Act Three is particularly significant for its freshness and undiluted expressivity. In the opera’s final moments, her singing of ‘Preis' deinen Engel und sein Gebot! Hier steh ich, treu dir bis zum Tod!’ erupts from the disc with an immediacy that could hardly be greater were the listener in a prime seat in the stalls at Covent Garden. The solidity of the top As and B♭ leaves no doubt about the firmness of Senta’s resolve, but these are not the defiant tones of Isolde or Brünnhilde: these are the sounds of a young woman embracing new, transformed life. Above all, they are the products of one of the world’s greatest voices, here on extraordinary form and finally preserved in sonics worthy of the singing. Also worthy of Flagstad’s artistry—and, from the perspective of this writer, reasons to acquire this Immortal Performances release as compelling as the 1937 Fliegende Holländer—are the 1949 and 1950 San Francisco broadcast recordings of Senta’s Ballade and three of Richard Strauss’s most celebrated Lieder included on the set’s second disc. The passage of twelve years robbed Flagstad of nothing in terms of her vocal and dramatic interpretations of the Ballade, which in the San Francisco performance conducted by San Francisco Opera founder Gaetano Merola has even greater lushness than in the Covent Garden broadcast. Flagstad premièred Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder in London’s Royal Albert Hall on 22 May 1950, less than five months before the performances of ‘Befreit,’ ‘Allerseelen,’ and ‘Cäcilie’ presented here. Though the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier was one of the rôles that Artur Bodanzky charged her with learning before traveling to the USA to fulfill her new contract with the Metropolitan Opera, she never sang any of Strauss’s operas in New York or elsewhere. The availability of these performances of ‘Befreit,’ ‘Allerseelen,’ and ‘Cäcilie’ in such fine sound partially makes amends for the missed opportunities of Flagstad’s Marschallin, Ariadne, and Färberin.

The near-impossible ambiguity of the Holländer is that, in order to be wholly believable in accordance with Wagner’s text, he must sound like both a man reckless enough to have made a deal with the devil and one capable of inspiring the sort of undeviating redemptive love that Senta develops for him. Bringing to the part a voice of a size appropriate for the music, Janssen has no need to cheat at either end of the range as many Holländers have done. Like Flagstad’s and Weber’s, his voice is appealingly spry, but his characterization is guided by an uncommonly thoughtful maturity. In the Act One aria 'Die Frist ist um, und abermals verstrichen sind sieben Jahr,' Janssen is untroubled by the frequent top E♭s, but the most arresting component of his interpretation is the world-weariness that he evinces without warping the vocal line with ponderousness. In the duet with Daland, he sculpts 'Weit komm ich her; verwehrt bei Sturm und Wetter ihr mir den Ankerplatz?' with poignant hesitation, the words those of a man too often injured to risk hoping anew. Janssen and Flagstad spellbindingly portray a man and woman falling in love rather than allegorical representations of sin and redemption in the Holländer’s Act Two duet with Senta, 'Wie aus der Ferne längst vergangner Zeiten.' The dramatic focus and beauty of tone that the baritone exhibits in his singing of 'Du bust ein Engel, eines Engels Liebe Verworfne selbst zu trösten Weiß!' are phenomenal, his security in the high tessitura ushering him into the rarified company of singers who can manage this music without strain. In Act Three, the heartbreak in his articulation of 'Verloren! Ach! Verloren! Ewig verlornes Heil!' is crushing, the climactic top F aimed like an arrow at the heart of fickle destiny. His pronouncement of 'den „fliegende Holländer“ nennt man mich' is crestfallen rather than menacing, the singer projecting the totality of the character’s troubled psyche through those six words. Cumulatively, Janssen is perhaps the most sympathetic Holländer on disc: Schorr had greater tonal orotundity, Nissen equal nobility of demeanor, and Hotter more sheer voice, but no recorded Holländer past or present is as moving as Janssen was in this 1937 performance.

Many singers’ and conductors’ work in Der fliegende Holländer suggests that their notions of effectively performing the opera—the score in which Wagner became Wagner, as it were—are that the composer’s stylistic advancement is best served by making Der fliegende Holländer sound like Tristan und Isolde, Siegfried, or Parsifal. How wrongheaded the 1937 Covent Garden broadcast performance of Der fliegende Holländer proves this to be! As is almost always true in opera, the most effective performances of any score are those in which the characters, however parabolic, are invested with recognizable humanity. Similarly, the most effective recordings are those in which the performances at hand are lovingly prepared and presented. From both of these perspectives, Immortal Performances’ edition of the 1937 Covent Garden Der fliegende Holländer broadcast is one of the most important, most inspiring releases in more than a century of recorded opera.

Charles Moor's scenic design for Act Three of Richard Wagner's DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER in the Coronation Season production of 1937 [Image from the collection of the Royal Opera House, © by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden]Das Geisterschiff: Charles Moor's scenic design for Act Three of Richard Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer in the Coronation Season production of 1937 [Image from the collection of the Royal Opera House, © by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden]