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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Recordings Review: Sail of the Century

Marek Janowski's new Der Fliegende Holländer.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The legendary Flying Dutchman sits down for a meal on SpongeBob SquarePants.
Promotional image for Ship O Ghouls, © 1999 United Plankton Pictures/Nickelodeon Studios.
The second installment of Marek Janowski's Wagner project for Pentatone Classics--a plan to record new concert versions of the ten "main sequence" Wagner operas is Der Fliegende Holländer. Again, this recording features the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Mr. Janowski. This recording was made at one performance: on November 13, 2010.

Mr. Janowski's brisk approach to this music is particularly well suited to the famous overture, which has more to do with Weber than Wagner's later music drama. He is helped by strong playing from the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. The strings kick up salt spray. The horns search and surge. And the trumpet call (symbol of the Dutchman's defiance of the forces of Hell) sounds like the wrath of God. 

Part of the problem with a performance of Dutchman is that the 29-year old Wagner laid out all the themes of the opera in that short overture: which means that you need really good singers to make Die frist ist um and Senta's Ballad dramatically involving. Mr. Janowski offers a strong cast. Albert Dohmen's dark, melancholy bass-baritone is perfectly suited to the title character. He walks the edge of mystery and menace, with raw passion underneath. 

Ricarda Merbeth does not have an instantly attractive soprano. She tightens above the stave and the instrument spreads when she opens up in loud passages. But her passionate attack on the character proves persuasive. Better yet, her voice is dramatically involving, pulling the listener into this girl's world with intelligent singing and idiomatic phrasing.

Senta's father Daland is a thoroughly repugnant character--the mercenary sea captain who quickly marries off his daughter in exchange for the Dutchman's treasure. That said, it's hard to dislike the character as sung by Matti Salminen. This is the Finnish bass' second recording of the role (the first was at Bayreuth in the early '80s. He remains one of the finest "heavy" basses singing today, and his black-toned instrument nearly overpowers the Dutchman in their Act I duet.

Robert Dean Smith makes the most of his limited opprtunities as Erik, the fella that Senta ditches for the Dutchman. Mr. Smith plays the land-locked hunter as a heroic figure in his own right. Where some tenors play Erik as a whiny boy, making a future with a cursed, waterlogged sailor an attractive alternative, this performance forces Senta to actually make a choice between two men.

Mr. Janowski keeps the action of the opera moving. By making this a live concert recording, he keeps the energy of the piece driving forward and allows the listener to hear smooth transitions between the three acts without the clomping of the sailors. The choral work is excellent, with the live sailors, village women and the Dutchman's ghostly crew coming across clearly. He also chooses to use Wagner's "redemption" ending of 1862, producing a beautiful pianissimo at the end of the overture and in the last pages of the opera itself.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats