Wagner nights have been scarce in these parts since the grand Boston Opera House was demolished in 1958. True, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and other local ensembles have given memorable concert performances of Richard Wagner’s complete operas (and excerpts) in recent years. Just a few weeks ago, the BSO presented a program of orchestral and vocal chunks torn from five different Wagner operas.
As true Wagner-philes know, however, there is no substitute for seeing the works in staged form, with sets, costumes, wigs, spears, dragons, and stormy Nordic skies. The problem is that most of Wagner’s operas are big — really, really big — and require an appropriately sized theater with a large stage and orchestra pit. A big budget also helps. Despite its many musical charms, our fair city does not now possess that sort of facility, or, since the demise of Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston, that kind of budget. More than 20 years have passed since the last staged production of a Wagner opera, which was also “The Flying Dutchman,” given by Boston Lyric Opera in the 1989-90 season. But things might be changing.
On Friday, “The Flying Dutchman” (“Der fliegende Höllander”) will land again in Boston, in a new BLO production at the Citi Performing Arts Center Shubert Theatre. It is a doubly historic occasion. The five performances will present the US premiere of the opera’s little-known original 1841 version, and honor the bicentennial of Wagner’s birth in 1813. “This production will help to put us on the map,” said conductor David Angus, BLO’s music director, in a recent interview. “There are ‘Dutchmen’ in opera houses everywhere, but this will stand out for us. It is also the biggest thing I’ve done here with the orchestra.” Passionate Wagnerites from far and wide are expected to converge for the event. Yo-ho-hoey!
Angus is quick to point out, however, that BLO isn’t doing this just for the publicity. He insists that he really does find this earlier version of “Dutchman” superior to the one first performed in Dresden in 1843 that has long been the standard. Indeed, Angus was never very fond of “Dutchman” (and had never previously conducted it) until he discovered the 1841 version, published a few years ago in a critical edition by the German publisher Schott.
“I always had my doubts about the piece, but I came to understand that it was the performances I didn’t like,” Angus explained. “They were always so slow and ponderous. The orchestration of the earlier version is lighter, athletic, and more energetic, without overdone dramatic effects. The scoring is busy, but also classical, with more delicacy than in the later operas. It is much more in the tradition of composers like Carl Maria von Weber (especially his opera ‘Der Freischütz’), Beethoven, and Schubert.”
Michael Cavanagh directs the production, featuring British soprano Allison Oakes in the demanding role of the heroine Senta; both are making their BLO debuts. Bass-baritone Alfred Walker appears as the Dutchman, with bass Gregory Frank as Donald and tenor Chad Shelton as Georg. BLO artistic adviser John Conklin designed the sets and costumes. A fair warning: Respecting Wagner’s wishes, the first performance on April 26 will be performed without interruption. Subsequent performances have one intermission.
When he began work on what became “The Flying Dutchman” in 1841, Wagner was only 28, with three operas to his credit. A harrowing 1839 sea voyage through the Baltic and North Seas to London stimulated Wagner’s interest in the well-known legend of a sea captain doomed to sail for eternity because of his profane defiance of heaven. Once every seven years he is allowed to come ashore in search of a woman whose faithful love will end his forced wandering. It is Senta, stifled by her confined life in an isolated fishing village, who falls in love with him and his romantic fate — with explosive results.
Wagner wrote the libretto himself, drawing upon German romantic poet Heinrich Heine. Originally, Wagner set the action in Scotland and completed the first orchestrated version in autumn, 1841, anticipating a production in Berlin. But the 1843 premiere took place in Dresden in a substantially revised form, with the setting changed to the coast of Norway. In later years, Wagner continued to revise and enlarge the orchestration.
The BLO production restores both the Scottish setting and the 1841 orchestration. Also restored are the Scottish names of two characters: Donald (later Daland), the father of Senta; and Georg (later Erik), Senta’s rejected suitor. The 1841 version also ends differently. Instead of a transcendent “Tristan and Isolde” moment of climactic redemption, with Senta and the Dutchman (according to the stage directions) “rising from the sea, and floating upwards,” the earlier version ends tragically, “with a smash and crash,” as David Angus describes it. “She dies and the ship sinks, he is gone and that’s it.” Angus points to the addition of the harp in the final measures of the revised version (“it sounds so Hollywood”) as an example of how Wagner altered the more restrained original.
Angus was surprised to find how much the Scottish setting influenced the music. “You can hear the sound of the Scottish bagpipe drone underneath the spinning chorus in Act II, and possibly some other Scottish folk song sources. And I am telling the singers to approach the music like a folksong, in a simple, light style.” Another significant change involves Senta’s music. Her Act II ballad-aria, where she tells the Dutchman’s sad tale, originally written in A minor, was later lowered to G minor to accommodate a recalcitrant soprano.
Wagner also used “natural” brass instruments typical of the era, without modern valves. The BLO orchestra will use natural trumpets for the fanfare calls that appear throughout the score, but not natural horns. “We have to be realistic about what’s possible,” said Angus. “We are not going to use gut strings, or aim for an authentic early music sound, but rather something more appropriate for the era.”
Now completing his third season as BLO’s music director, Angus admits that this “Dutchman” is testing the limits of the company’s financial resources, and of its home at the Shubert Theatre. There are 48 singers in the chorus, with an expanded string section crammed into the tiny orchestra pit. Is more Wagner on the horizon? “It would be crazy not to build on this momentum, and we hope to do some more Wagner operas — maybe ‘Tannhäuser’ or ‘Tristan and Isolde,’ which use small orchestras. But the ‘Ring’ cycle will have to wait until we have a new theater.”