Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Approaching the Dutchman: Wagner's motives & mythology

Wagner was the first among the great composers of romantic opera to write his own libretti. Starting with The Flying Dutchman, he referred to his operatic scripts as poems. Newcomers to Wagner might find his deep interest in mythology a familiar portal through which to enter his unique world.

He called the Flying Dutchman a "mythical poem." His title character represents "a primeval trait of man's essential nature." This figure is the restless and ambitious wanderer - familiar across mythologies and legends from Homer's Ulysses to the "Wandering Jew" Ahasuerus (a medieval Christian legend about a man who cursed Jesus and was cursed in return to wander the earth until the "Second Coming" of Christ. The Wagnerian scholar Isolde Vetter refers to the Dutchman as "The Ahasuerus of the Oceans"). According to Wagner, this complex archetypal character possesses "heart-enthralling power." The music he composed for the Dutchman is among his most gripping; it is heart-stopping in the sheer force of declamation required of the baritone who sings him to life.

The Flying Dutchman - cursed to sail the seas forever unless he can find true love on his one day ashore every seven years - is the first of Wagner's "rootless wanderers." Like Ulysses, he is a familiar figure across human dramas as the exile, the loner, the rebel (with or without a cause) and/or the outcast. Wagner's greatest bass-baritone role is Wotan (similar to Odin in Norse Mythology and recently recreated by the actor Anthony Hopkins in the film version of the Marvel Comics story of Thor). Other great Wagnerian wanderers include Siegmund and Parsifal.

Like the Vampire, the Dutchman desires a woman who is enthralled by "the dark side." Wagner's first "redeeming woman" is Senta. Like Mina with Dracula, the operatic heroine is haunted by visions and dreams of this mysterious and darkly elegant nobleman, a figure from a brooding chiaroscuro portrait believed to be imaginary...

Wagner is known for developing a complex system of motives called leitmotiven (leading motives) that characterize both his singing actors and their conflicting emotions, states of being and fates. The Flying Dutchman is the first of his mature music dramas to explore the possibilities of a system he developed further than any previous composer.

The two most famous vocal scenes in the opera are the Dutchman's Monologue in Act I and Senta's Ballad in Act II. The Dutchman's "aria" is Shakespearean in scope, range and depth as he tells his story and pours out his haunted soul. Wagner called Senta's "aria" a "poetically condensed image of the whole drama." The Flying Dutchman was the first in a series of dramas where the composer attempted to dispense with the "tiresome operatic accessories" of the Italian and French styles. Remnants of those more traditional - and to 19th century audiences, familiar - forms remain. Both solos resemble the romantic operatic tradition of the scena: recitative, aria and cabaletta. As Verdi would later do (following Wagner's lead), the traditional "numbers" become integrated as seamlessly as possible into the entire fabric of the musical drama. Wagner preferred his three acts to be performed without a break, with one scene literally flowing like water into the next.

The secondary duo of principal characters (so frequently overshadowed by the Dutchman and Senta) are rounded and compelling creations. Senta's father, the Norwegian captain Daland resembles an operatic type found in Beethoven's Rocco (from Fidelio, performed in Roanoke in the 2007-2008 season). Daland's music has a conventionality that is purposeful - this opportunistic petit bourgeois businessman is in sharp relief with his spellbound bad-boy-loving daughter. Senta's terrestrial boyfriend, the "hot-blooded" young hunter, Erik is among the first of Wagner's poetic and romantic tenors. I see Erik as a complex "other" compared to the Dutchman and not as the disgruntled cipher he is sometimes assumed to be. His first "aria" is the recounting of a disturbing dream about Senta and the mysterious ghost pirate by whom she is enchanted. The dream proves to be prophetic and even Erik's impassioned serenade in the final act cannot dissuade Senta from following what she believes to be her destiny. She will save the Dutchman from his curse, and join him as either a "Bride of Death" or a "Saving Angel" whose sacrificial love redeems the "fallen one."

Our outstanding cast will engage and enthrall (and even entertain!) our audiences this weekend. I can't wait to be a part of it. Even non-musicians and operatic neophytes will recognize the familiarity of this music. Both the Dutchman's and Senta's individual motives are dramatically intertwined. Wagner brilliantly links the two characters musically, reinforcing their mutual attraction and connection by joining their motives and combining their themes at pivotal moments across the drama. This connection is reinforced by our fantastic young stage director, Crystal Manich. I shall not divulge the moving "coup de theatre" with which our new production concludes; inquiring minds shall have to see the drama and hear the music in person this weekend at the Jefferson Center...

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