A brace of ghost ships

Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer/ Dietsch: Le vaisseau fantôme (Naïve) ***

naive-hollander-vaisseau-fantomeOne of the more enterprising celebrations to mark Wagner’s bicentenary last year now arrives on disc courtesy of Naïve. Conductor Marc Minkowski had been considering recording Die Feen, but opted instead for the original 1841 version of Der fliegende Holländer, presented in a single act, coupling it with Pierre-Louis Dietsch’s opera Le Vaisseau fantôme. The two share a tangled history. Wagner had arrived in Paris in 1839 wishing to write for the Opéra and devised a one-act scenario which could take place as a curtain-raiser to a ballet. A libretto and even some music (Senta’s ballad among them) were shown to Léon Pillet, the director of the Opéra, who promptly dismissed it. Instead, he offered to purchase the synopsis (and possibly the libretto) from Wagner for 500 francs. The Opéra had a French libretto created, drawing on Walter Scott’s The Pirate and Frederick Marryat’s The Phantom Ship as additional references and gave it to Pierre-Louis Dietsch, newly appointed chorus-master at the Opéra. The resulting opera, Dietsch’s only effort in the genre, premiered in November 1842, just prior to Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, which opened in Dresden two months later.

We’ve had a period Holländer on disc before. Bruno Weil’s DHM recording benefited from light textures, but was dimly recorded; in Terje Stensvold, it had a dramatically disengaged Dutchman, plus a Senta whose tone was less than endearing. Minkowski’s new version is to be preferred on all counts. Although Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble field just fewer than 40 string players, they are closely recorded and have great presence. Minkowski leads a spritely rendition of the Overture – a tad swifter than Roger Norrington on a disc of German romantic overtures – and ensures drama aplenty in the score; the arrival of the Dutchman’s ship towards the end of the Steersman’s sleepy ballad is played with real punch. The lighter string texture ensures that woodwind contributions are never lost and their playing is characterful, as are the rasping natural horns. Minkowski ensures crisp playing and taut rhythms, yet cranks up the drama with momentum.

Evgeny Nikitin  (c) Bob Gruen

Evgeny Nikitin
(c) Bob Gruen

Vocally, this is also much stronger than Weil’s cast. Evgeny Nikitin is a splendid Dutchman. I’ve encountered his Klingsor on a couple of occasions and he’s a Wagnerian bass-baritone to be reckoned with. ‘Die Frist ist um’ finds him full of foreboding, his biting diction an asset, even if he is a little stretched at the top of his register in the monologue’s central section, starting ‘Dich frage ich’. The furious double basses figures make a great impact here. The Senta of Ingela Brimberg is a little problematic. She was originally a mezzo-soprano and there is a glassy quality to her top notes, where the voice loses colour, although she attacks them fearlessly enough in her Ballad. Some listeners may find her vibrato intrusive.

As Donald, Mika Kares (in the original scenario, the Dutchman washes up on Scottish shores, so Daland was Donald, Eric was Georg) is a lighter bass-baritone than Nikitin, which leads to an unusual reversal of tone in their almost Donizettian duet. Eric Cutler is a lighter tenor than you’d hear singing Wagner in big opera houses, but he has a bright, attractive tone and is not swamped by the orchestra at any point. I was also very taken by Bernard Richter’s Steuermann; he has a thrilling, heroic top (and takes on the role of Magnus – the equivalent to Eric/Georg – in Dietsch’s opera).

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir might, on paper, look a little light in numbers to give the opening of Act III the heft it ideally requires. The men (all 19 of them) sing lustily enough as the carousing sailors, but they also have to double as the Dutchman’s crew, which means they aren’t off-stage and lack any sort of ghostly presence. However, this is a minor quibble and doesn’t stop this being an enormously rewarding Holländer.

Marc Minkowski  (c) Marco Borggreve

Marc Minkowski
(c) Marco Borggreve

The 1841 version doesn’t offer Wagner’s Dutchman the redemption he was later granted, both in the Overture and at the opera’s conclusion. By a curious quirk, Dietsch does. After Minna (Senta) throws herself from the rock into the sea, the clouds part and she leads Troïl (the accursed sailor, whose pardon she has bought) to the foot of God’s throne.

The flavour of Dietsch’s Le vaisseau fantôme is decidedly un-Wagnerian. He throws in plenty of other influences into the mix, his opera being essentially a ‘numbers’ opera in two acts, a pot-pourri of styles ranging from Meyerbeer to Helévy, from Rossini to Gounod. When Act I opens with a running figure in the strings reminiscent of the Major General in The Pirates of Penzance, it’s not the most auspicious of starts! The set pieces at times seem incongruous with the action which is supposed to be taking place. It’s not until the short Act II where Dietsch eventually cranks up the melodrama. However, there’s some enjoyable music, even if it’s nowhere near as memorable as Wagner’s for the same scenario. There’s a lot of music designed to show off the ability of the singer, even so, it’s a little surprising when Bernard Richter (Magnus) pops out a couple of high Ds in his otherwise tender duet with Minna!

Sally Matthews is a warm, engaging Minna, at her best in the Act I prayer, accompanied by harp and solo viola, in which she negotiates some tricky high notes well. The cabaletta which follows, in jaunty polonaise rhythms, is an effective vocal showpiece, thought hardly in keeping with the drama. Barlow (her father, sung by Ugo Rabec) is granted a cheerful ditty, while the Shetlanders and Swedish sailors exchange  merry drinking songs. The ‘accursed sailor’ is no Dutchman, but a Swede going by the name of Troïl and he’s an altogether more sympathetic character. Russell Braun’s lighter baritone sings nobly in duet, but it would be folly to suggest the role challenges Wagner’s doom-laden mariner. Still, Dietsch’s opera is worth hearing, if only to serve as a reminder as to how revolutionary Wagner’s opera was.

Alexandre Dratwicki, who edited the score of Le vaisseau fantôme, provides a scholarly booklet note, as does Minkowski. Librettos and translations are included.

Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer (129’49”)
Evgeny Nikitin, Ingela Brimberg, Eric Cutler, Mika Kares, Bernard Richard, Helende Schneiderman;
Dietsch: Le Vaisseau fantôme (105’23”]
Russell Braun; Sally Matthews, Bernard Richter, Ugo Rabec, Eric Cutler, Mika Kares;
Eesti Filharoonia Kammerkoor
Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble/ Marc Minkowski
Naïve (4 CDs) V5349

This review originally appeared on Opera Britannia.

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