This Dutchman Flies

A concert performance of a Wagner opera is not my idea of a good time - and I don't suppose the grouchy Gesamtkunstwerker himself would have been very keen on hearing his own music without sets and costumes. Still, I recently schlepped (London traffic is hellish before Christmas) to the Barbican Hall to hear London Lyric Opera's single performance of Der fliegende Holländer by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the 100-voice Philharmonia Choir, because the score being used was the opera as Wagner intended it to be performed, following the final revisions he made in 1860. The differences, I discovered, were not merely of academic interest.

Tecchy details aside, it was a great three hours that made me reflect generally on the foremost pleasure of concert performances: you're able to concentrate on the words. Though I've seen plenty of Flying Dutchmen, and read the libretto more than once, I never before appreciated the nuances of the story - especially of the psychological weirdness of the characters. Only one of the cast was a native German-speaker, Karl Huml, a tall, elegant bass who sang Daland (and made it clear that he's motivated by greed, just like our contemporaries complained about in the British press today, who force marriages upon their daughters). But despite the others' imperfect German diction, with the aid of the surtitles I could make out a lot of the words. That, and the startlingly fine acting as well as singing of Gweneth-Ann Jeffers as Senta, changed my mind about the whole deal.

This young black soprano held the stage just by being there. As she was sitting with her gaze down at the floor when she began her first number with her nurse and the female chorus, I did not realize at first where the hushed, warm sound was coming from. Slowly she rose from her chair and looked up, and it was as electrifying as any grand entrance. The liquid, rich, dark, almost mezzo color of her voice makes you think of deep, deep green olive oil, or melting, 90%+ cocoa-solids chocolate.

In her programme note, "The Sacrificial Female," Germaine Greer treats Senta as a not very rare specimen of a particular abnormal psychology: "Like the girls who sashay forth to clubland dressed (or undressed) to kill, she is looking for risk and excitement with Mr Wrong." Greer compares her to the women who queue up to marry men on Death Row - "US state prisons each average about ten ... per year." Ms Jeffers' Senta doesn't to me seem so much a dangerous-thrill-seeker as an involuntarily Romantic sexual obsessive. But she's a star, no kidding.

The conductor, Lionel Friend, trained with Reginald Goodall, the greatest of all British Wagnerians, and was also assistant to Daniel Barenboim for his Bayreuth Ring (which I saw twice). Friend did the research himself for the edition of the score used for this performance, uncut and in the original keys, played by the 78-member orchestra as originally specified.

The big change is that Senta's Ballade, in which she recounts the legend of the Dutchman damned to sail the seas forever until he finds his "angel," a woman who will sacrifice everything for him, was sung in the key of A minor, a whole tone higher than the G minor to which it had been transposed to make it singable by the creator of the role, the aging dramatic soprano, Wilhelmine Schroder Devrient. Just before the performance I heard a recording of the great Anja Silja (still with us - same age as me indeed- and singing the Witch in some of the performances of the new Hänsel und Gretel at Covent Garden). She sang the Ballade in the higher key in her 1960 début at Bayreuth as Senta (and as Wieland Wagner's mistress); but even on this recording, which I think was the live one from 1961, it sounded a bit of a stretch.

Ms Jeffers, though, had absolutely no trouble with the higher pitch - you couldn't detect at all where the break between her head and chest voice came, and her lower register is as firm and juicy as her high notes, which have no trace of shrillness or even effort.

I felt sorry for some of the other singers. Whatever his motivation may be, the Dutchman himself, James Hancock, was obviously in the throes of a cold. In the interval I was chatting with Dame Anne Evans, a distinguished Senta, and I remarked that it must be frightening to appear in a concert performance of Wagner without your make-up, wig and costume to hide behind. She replied sternly that "good singing is good singing," but agreed that the singers must feel exposed. I still think there was something extra brave about this event - but I don't think I'll be rushing to a concert performance of Götterdämmerung any time soon. And though this was great, I'm still not sure I really enjoy concert performances of opera all that much - should I try harder?

December 17, 2008 8:01 AM | | Comments (3)


Thanks for taking the time to comment, Betty, Actually, I strongly approve of using these transferred traits as descriptors. Indeed, I think there are many areas where we can really only describe phenomena by using analogy, but that sometimes this is extremely well-grounded. Take, for example, the case of the vocabulary of the wine-taster, and his "bananas and bubble-gum" and "tarry" smells. In all these cases a scientific analysis of the wine shows the presence of the chemical compounds associated with these smells - so the taster's descriptors are far from fanciful -- they are remarkably precise. Not that I think the very same argument can be used with regard to the human voice (or other musical sounds); but the concrete vocabulary we possess to describe the human voice is extremely poor, so we are thrown back onto analogy. And to answer your last question, even if it was intended to be rhetorical -- yes, I think ascribing the bubble-gum smell to the cheap beaujolais as as plain as English gets.

Dear Paul, I like your angle in Plain English, but I used to hate textile adjectives like "silken" and "velvety" applied to food, so how can I embrace food adjectives like "deep green olive oil" and "90 %+ cocoa-solids chocolate" applied to vocalizations? Is this plain English??

Hello Paul and welcome to blogsville!

I certainly agree about concert performances of Wagner operas. They cry out for dramatic staging. I never could get into listening to records of Wagner operas, but ever since I went to see my first one - I have been captivated. I did see a concert performance of Lohengrin at the Edinburgh Festival a few years back - the singing was magnificent but you do really miss the action.

We are just back from Berlin where we saw the best Tannhäuser EVER at the Deutscher Oper. Great voices again but absolutely thrillingly and magnificently staged which greatly enhanced the sensuality of it all. By contrast we saw a rather trite production of Turandot at the Staatsoper, where Turandot lived in a teddy bear and Liu had long blond hair and wore a dress decorated by a huge cross. Calaf looked like a cross between Rocky Marciano and Billy Bunter and answered the three riddles by jumping on the keys of a giant cellphone. All so pointless and too clever by half.

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on December 17, 2008 8:01 AM.

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