The Flying Dutchman – also for simple folk

The Flying Dutchman

Aimez-vous Wagner? Yes, and no! Marathon operas are notorious, and yet their enormous length can have a calming and even euphoric effect. One KNOWS that there is no end to it, so one resigns oneself, takes a nap now and then and feasts on the enchanting sounds. The concept of time has no hold on you for a while. In fact, notoriously long operas with no end in sight are harder to bear than the 16 hours you spend on Der Ring des Nibelungen. Think of Gounod’s Faust (takes an hour too long), Carmen (can be half as long) and all of Meyerbeer’s operas.

We are not Wagnerians, we are too simple-minded for that. We lack the necessary antecedents, not to say that our antecedents are decidedly counterproductive. We are passionate supporters of Ajax Football Club (nicknamed “Superjews”) and, as you no doubt know, Wagner was a war criminal during the Second World War. That is not compatible.

Nevertheless, one of Wagner’s operas is an absolute favourite with us, and that is Der Fliegende Holländer aka The Flying Dutchman. This is mainly because of one of the countless motives that appear in this opera: there is the “Holländermotiv”, the “Geisterrufmotiv”, the “Liebestreuemotiv”, and a few others. But, paraphrasing 1 Corinthians 13, the greatest of these is the “Matrosenchormotiv”. An impulse for personal wellbeing, again and again, and although our frame of mind is draughty and much knowing has been blown out of it, the Matrosenchormotiv remains a deep fulfilment of nameable and unnameable needs.


The Matrosenchormotiv looks like this:

The Flying Dutchman - also for simple folk

And that’s how it sounds:

It is true that Senta’s ballad in the second act also stirs the soul, but for The Motif we are prepared to travel far.

And so we did. Twice we visited Le Vaisseau Fantôme aka The Flyuing Dutchman aka Der Fliegende Holländer in the French capital, directed by Willy Decker. The last time was in 2010, with Matti Salminen, Adrianne Pieczoncka and James Morris as soloists.

And once again “Bastille” put this Decker production on the programme. The premiere was on 7 October. Decker is certainly not the most abject hustler under modern directors, there are far worse. But still. At the time, Decker said that the sea was impossible to bring to the stage. We think: it is indeed possible! A ship was out of the question for Decker too. And according to Decker, the storm is best evoked by the protagonists’ inner struggle, while a powerful fan would do well here. Decker’s remarks sound somewhat pathetic in the year 2021; one did not yet know what horrors so-called “modern” directors would inflict on us. When directors start tampering with the stage image, painful discrepancies lurk: when Senta is about to sing the legend of the Holländer, the women say “let’s stop working”, while they had just stopped their work long before.  “Let’s stop working” is then ridiculous.

The Flying Dutchman - also for simple folk
Willy Decker, regie. Der fliegende Holländer. Parijs 2021. ©Gregor Kalus

Full-blooded Wagnerians benevolently tolerate Der fliegende Holländer, but clearly prefer the Ring and “the” Tristan. The Holländer is actually a sympathetic piece of amateur work, is the underlying thought. Wasn’t the Great Master himself once of the opinion that his youthful work was incomplete? In the 1850s, he had already been tinkering with the orchestration, but eventually, as a fifty-year-old, he came to the conclusion that the young Wagner had left out just what was essential: the redemption of the unhappy sailor by the devotion and loyalty of Senta. Wagner put forward a “with-the-knowledge-of-today” excuse for this omission. But now he had composed Isoldes “Verklärung”, and something needed to be done about the Holländer. So he glued a new Tristan-like ending to it and decreed that the opera could only be performed in its revised form. And in the revised form, the nautical, tough, haunting atmosphere, becomes bogged down in a conciliatory, woeful ending, accompanied by harp.

We don’t care, because we have the sailor choir “Steuermann, lass die Wacht”. Well, one more time then:

Opernchor Staatstheater Braunschweig, MET schip

Olivier Keegel

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Olivier Keegel


Chief Editor 2019-2024. Now reviewer. Does not need much more than Verdi, Bellini and Donizetti. Wishes to resuscitate Tito Schipa and Fritz Wunderlich. Certified unmasker of directors' humbug.

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