Music with Ease > Operas of Richard Wagner > The Flying Dutchman (Wagner) - Synopsis
'The Flying Dutchman'
(German title: Der fliegende Holländer)
An Opera by Richard Wagner
Opera in three acts, words and music by Richard Wagner. Produced, Royal Opera, Dresden, January 2, 1843. London, July 23, 1870, as "LOlandese Dannato"; October 3, 1876, by Carl Rosa, in English. New York, Academy of Music, January 26, 1877, in English, with Clara Louise Kellogg; March 12, 1877, in German; in the spring of 1883, in Italian, with Albani, Galassi, and Ravelli.
DALAND, a Norwegian sea captain
SENTA, his daughter
ERIC, a huntsman
MARY, SENTAS nurse
Sailors, Maidens, Hunters, etc.
Time: Eighteenth Century.
Place: A Norwegian Fishing Village.
From "Rienzi" Wagner took a great stride to "The Flying Dutchman." This is the first milestone on the road from opera to music-drama. Of his "Rienzi" the composer was in after years ashamed, writing to Liszt: "I, as an artist and man, have not the heart for the reconstruction of that, to my taste, superannuated work, which in consequence of its immoderate dimensions, I have had to remodel more than once. I have no longer the heart for it, and desire from all my soul to do something new instead." He spoke of it as a youthful error, but in "The Flying Dutchman" there is little, if anything, which could have troubled his artistic conscience.
An East German postage stamp showing Richard Wagner and a scene from his opera, The Flying Dutchman, in which Senta casts herself from a cliff as the Dutchman's ship puts out to sea
One can hardly imagine the legend more effective dramatically and musically than it is in Wagners libretto and score. It is a work of wild and somber beauty, relieved only occasionally by touches of light and grace, and has all the interest attaching to a work in which for the first time a genius feels himself conscious of his greatness. If it is not as impressive as "Tannhäuser" or "Lohengrin," nor as stupendous as the music-dramas, that is because the subject of the work is lighter. As his genius developed, his choice of subjects and his treatment of them passed through as complete an evolution as his musical theory, so that when he finally abandoned the operatic form and adopted his system of leading motives, he conceived, for the dramatic bases of his scores, dramas which it would be difficult to fancy set to any other music than that which is so characteristic in his music-dramas.
Wagners present libretto is based upon the weirdly picturesque legend of "The Flying Dutchman" -- the Wandering Jew of the ocean. A Dutch sea-captain, who, we are told, tried to double the Cape of Good Hope in the teeth of a furious gale, swore that he would accomplish his purpose even if he kept on sailing forever. The devil, hearing the oath, condemned the captain to sail the sea until Judgment Day, without hope of release, unless he should find a woman who would love him faithfully unto death. Once in every seven years he is allowed to go ashore in search of a woman who will redeem him through her faithful love.
The opera opens just as a term of seven years has elapsed. The Dutchmans ship comes to anchor in a bay of the coast of Norway, in which the ship of Daland, a Norwegian sea-captain, has sought shelter from the storm. Dalands home is not far from the bay, and the Dutchman, learning he has a daughter, asks permission to woo her, offering him in return all his treasures. Daland readily consents. His daughter, Senta, is a romantic maiden upon whom the legend of "The Flying Dutchman" has made a deep impression. As Daland ushers the Dutchman into his home Senta is gazing dreamily upon a picture representing the unhappy hero of the legend. The resemblance of the stranger to the face in this picture is so striking that the emotional girl is at once attracted to him, and pledges him her faith, deeming it her mission to save him. Later on, Eric, a young huntsman, who is in love with her, pleads his cause with her, and the Dutchman, overhearing them, and thinking himself again forsaken, rushes off to his vessel. Senta cries out that she is faithful to him, but is held back by Eric, Daland, and her friends. The Dutchman, who really loves Senta, then proclaims who he is, thinking to terrify her, and at once puts to sea. But she, undismayed by his words, and truly faithful unto death, breaks away from those who are holding her, and rushing to the edge of a cliff casts herself into the ocean, with her arms outstretched toward him. The phantom ship sinks, the sea rises high and falls back into a seething whirpool. In the sunset glow the forms of Senta and the Dutchman are seen rising in each others embrace from the sea and floating upward.
In "The Flying Dutchman" Wagner employs several leading motives, not, indeed, with the skill which he displays in his music-dramas, but with considerably greater freedom of treatment than in "Rienzi." There we had but one leading motive, which never varied in form. The overture, which may be said to be an eloquent and beautiful musical narrative of the whole opera, contains all these leading motives. It opens with a stormy passage, out of which there bursts the strong but somber Motive of the Flying Dutchman himself, the dark hero of the legend. The orchestra fairly seethes and rages like the sea roaring under the lash of a terrific storm. And through all this furious orchestration there is heard again and again the motive of the Dutchman, as if his figure could be seen amid all the gloom and fury of the elements. There he stands, hoping for death, yet indestructible. As the excited music gradually dies away, there is heard a calm, somewhat undulating phrase which occurs in the opera when the Dutchmans vessel puts into the quiet Norwegian harbour. Then, also there occurs again the motive of the Dutchman, but this time played softly, as if the storm-driven wretch had at last found a moments peace.
We at once recognize to whom it is due that he has found this moment of repose, for we hear like prophetic measures the strains of the beautiful ballad which is sung by Senta in the second act of the opera, in which she relates the legend of "The Flying Dutchman" and tells of his unhappy fate. She is the one whom he is to meet when he goes ashore. The entire ballad is not heard at this point, only the opening of the second part, which may be taken as indicating in this overture the simplicity and beauty of Sentas character. In fact, it would not be too much to call this opening phrase the Senta Motive. It is followed by the phrase which indicates the coming to anchor of the Dutchmans vessel; then we hear the Motive of the Dutchman himself, dying away with the faintest possible effect. With sudden energy the orchestra dashes into the surging ocean music, introducing this time the wild, pathetic plaint sung by the Dutchman in the first act of the opera. Again we hear his motive, and again the music seems to represent the surging, swirling ocean when aroused by a furious tempest. Even when we hear the measures of the sailors chorus the orchestra continues its furious pace, making it appear as if the sailors were shouting above the storm.
Characteristic in this overture, and also throughout the opera, especially in Sentas ballad, is what may be called the Ocean Motive, which most graphically depicts the wild and terrible aspect of the ocean during a storm. It is varied from time to time, but never loses its characteristic force and weirdness. The overture ends with an impassioned burst of melody based upon a portion of the concluding phrases of Sentas ballad; phrases which we hear once more at the end of the opera when she sacrifices herself in order to save her lover.
A wild and stormy scene is disclosed when the curtain rises upon the first act. The sea occupies the greater part of the scene, and stretches itself out far toward the horizon. A storm is raging. Dalands ship has sought shelter in a little cove formed by the cliffs. Sailors are employed in furling sails and coiling ropes. Daland is standing on a rock, looking about him to discover in what place they are. The orchestra, chiefly with the wild ocean music heard in the overture, depicts the raging of the storm, and above it are heard the shouts of the sailors at work: "Ho-jo-he! Hal-lo-jo!"
Daland discovers that they have missed their port by seven miles on account of the storm, and deplores his bad luck that when so near his home and his beloved child, he should have been driven out of his course. As the storm seems to be abating the sailors descend into the hold and Daland goes down into the cabin to rest, leaving his steersman in charge of the deck. The steersman walks the deck once or twice and then sits down near the rudder, yawning, and then rousing himself as if sleep were coming over him. As if to force himself to remain awake he intones a sailor song, an exquisite little melody, with a dash of the sea in its undulating measures. He intones the second verse, but sleep overcomes him and the phrases become more and more detached, until at last he falls asleep.
The storm begins to rage again and it grows darker. Suddenly the ship of the Flying Dutchman, with blood-red sails and black mast, looms up in the distance. She glides over he waves as if she did not feel the storm of all, and quickly enters the harbour over against the ship of the Norwegian; then silently and without the least noise the spectral crew furl the sails. The Dutchman goes on shore.
Here now occur the weird, dramatic recitative and aria: "The term is passed, and once again are ended seven long years." As the Dutchman leans in brooding silence against a rock in the foreground, Daland comes out of the cabin and observes the ship. He rouses the steersman, who begins singing again a phrase of his song, until Daland points out the strange vessel to him, when he springs up and hails her through a speaking trumpet. Daland, however, perceives the Dutchman and going ashore questions him. It is then that the Dutchman, after relating a mariners story of ill luck and disaster, asks Daland to take him to his home and allow him to woo his daughter, offering him his treasures. At this point we have a graceful and pretty duet. Daland readily consenting that the Dutchman accompany him. The storm having subsided and the wind being fair, the crews of the vessels hoist sail to leave port, Dalands vessel disappearing just as the Dutchman goes on board his ship.
After an introduction in which we hear a portion of the steersmans song, and also that phrase which denotes the appearance of the Dutchmans vessel in the harbour, the curtain rises upon a room in Dalands house. On the walls are pictures of vessels, charts, and on the farther wall the portrait of a pale man with a dark beard. Senta leaning back in an armchair, is absorbed in dreamy contemplation of the portrait. Her old nurse, Mary, and her young friends are sitting in various parts of the room, spinning. Here we have that charming musical number famous all the musical world over, perhaps largely through Liszts admirable piano arrangement of it, the "Spinning Chorus." For graceful and engaging beauty it cannot be surpassed, and may be cited as a striking instance of Wagners gift of melody, should anybody at this late day be foolish enough to require proof of his genius in that respect. The girls tease Senta for gazing so dreamily at the portrait of the Flying Dutchman, and finally ask her if she will not sing his ballad.
This ballad is a masterpiece of composition, vocally and instrumentally, being melodious as well as descriptive. It begins with the storm music familiar from the overture, and with the weird measures of the Flying Dutchmans Motive, which sound like a voice calling in distress across the sea.
Senta repeats the measures of this motive, and then we have the simple phrases beginning: "A ship the restless ocean sweeps." Throughout this portion of the ballad the orchestra depicts the surging and heaving of the ocean, Sentas voice ringing out dramatically above the accompaniment. She then tells how he can be delivered from his curse, this portion being set to the measures which were heard in the overture, Senta finally proclaiming in the broadly
delivered, yet rapturous phrases with which the overture ends, that she is the woman who will save him by being faithful to him unto death. The girls about her spring up in terror and Eric, who has just entered the door and heard her outcry, hastens to her side. He brings news of the arrival of Dalands vessel, and Mary and the girls hasten forth to meet the sailors. Senta wishes to follow, but Eric restrains her and pleads his love for her in melodious measures. Senta, however, will not give him an answer at this time. He then tells her of a dream he has had, in which he saw a weird vessel from which two men, one her father, the other a ghastly-looking stranger, made their way. Her he saw going to the stranger and entreating him for his regard.
Senta, worked up to the highest pitch of excitement by Erics words, now exclaims: "He seeks for me and I for him," and Eric, full of despair and horror, rushes away. Senta, after her outburst of excitement, remains again sunk on contemplation of the picture, softly repeating the measures of her romance. The door opens and the Dutchman and Daland appear. The Dutchman is the first to enter. Senta turns from the picture to him, and, uttering a loud cry of wonder, remains standing as if transfixed without removing her eyes from the Dutchman. Daland, seeing that she does not greet him, comes up to her. She seizes his hand and after a hasty greeting asks him who the stranger is. Daland tells her of the strangers request, and leaves them alone. Then follows a duet for Senta and the Dutchman, with its broad, smoothly flowing melody and its many phrases of dramatic power, in which Senta gives herself up unreservedly to the hero of her romantic attachment, Daland finally entering and adding his congratulations to their betrothal. This scene closes the act.
The music of it re-echoes through the introduction of the next act and goes over into a vigorous sailors chorus and dance. The scene shows a bay with a rocky shore. Dalands house is in the foreground on one side, the background is occupied by his and the Dutchmans ships, which lie near one another. The Norwegian ship is lighted up, and all the sailors are making merry on the deck. In strange contrast is the Flying Dutchmans vessel. An unnatural darkness hangs over it and the stillness of death reigns aboard. The sailors and the girls in their merry making call loudly toward the Dutch ship to join them, but no reply is heard from the weird vessel. Finally the sailors call louder and louder and taunt the crew of the other ship. Then suddenly the sea, which has been quite calm, begins to rise. The storm wind whistles through the cordage of the strange vessel, and as dark bluish flames flare up in the rigging, the weird crew show themselves, and sing a wild chorus, which strikes terror into all the merrymakers. The girls have fled, and the Norwegian sailors quit their deck, making the sign of the cross. The crew of the Flying Dutchman observing this, disappear with shrill laughter. Over their ship comes the stillness of death. Thick darkness is spread over it and the air and the sea become calm as before.
Senta now comes with trembling steps out of the house. She is followed by Eric. He pleads with her and entreats her to remember his love for her, and speaks also of the encouragement which she once gave him. The Dutchman has entered unperceived and has been listening. Eric seeing him, at once recognizes the man of ghastly mien whom he saw in his vision. When the Flying Dutchman bids her farewell, because he deems himself abandoned, and Senta endeavours to follow him, Eric holds her and summons others to his aid. But in spite of all resistance, Senta seeks to tear herself loose. Then it is that the Flying Dutchman proclaims who he is and puts to sea. Senta, however, freeing herself, rushes to a cliff overhanging the sea, an calling out,
"Praise thou thine angel for what he saith;
Here stand I faithful, yea, to death,"
casts herself into the sea. Then occurs the concluding tableau, the work ending with the portion of the ballad which brought the overture and spinning scene to a close