Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Salvation through Love


My boyfriend has tickets for a new production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, which premiers at the London Coliseum, the home of the English National Opera, towards the end of the month. He has contacts with the company, so were kindly allowed to attend a recent rehearsal. I can tell you that it’s all looking good!

I confess that I’m not massively keen of the German master’s ponderously Teutonic total art works. I saw Parsifal last year in the same theatre. I’d heard some extracts before but that was my first full performance. What can I say, other than it’s deeply depressive, almost as depressive as Tristan and Isolde! There is such a negative, life-denying quality to Wagner’s philosophy. I can only agree with Nietzsche, who in Der Fall Wagner – The Wagner Case – contrasted his work with that of George Bizet, contrasted gloomy northern bogs with southern light and sun!

The Flying Dutchman is different, though, because it is one of Wagner’s early operas, written at a time when he hadn’t been completely seduced by his own mythos. Compared with Tristan and Parsifal, those knights of gloomy countenance, it has a much lighter touch with some really super arias. I love the choruses too. I think the Spinning Chorus quite wonderful as is Steuermann, laß die wacht, during which the Norwegian sailors call for the Dutch crew in the silent and ghostly ship to come and join them. They end by rather wishing that they had kept silent themselves!

Thinking beyond the opera, the legend itself has long intrigued me, the story of a cursed ship and crew, condemned to sail the oceans forever. The origin is uncertain, but it seems to have appeared for the first time in the seventeenth century, though possibly of much older provenance in the bowels of nautical folklore. It’s first mentioned in print in A Voyage to Botany Bay, published in 1795, in which the author says;

I had often heard of the superstition of sailors respecting apparitions, but had never given much credit to the report; it seems that some years since a Dutch man of war was lost off the Cape of Good Hope, and every soul on board perished; her consort weathered the gale, and arrived soon after at the Cape. Having refitted, and returning to Europe, they were assailed by a violent tempest nearly in the same latitude. In the night watch some of the people saw, or imagined they saw, a vessel standing for them under a press of sail, as though she would run them down: one in particular affirmed it was the ship that had foundered in the former gale, and that it must certainly be her, or the apparition of her; but on its clearing up, the object, a dark thick cloud, disappeared. Nothing could do away the idea of this phenomenon on the minds of the sailors; and, on their relating the circumstances when they arrived in port, the story spread like wild-fire, and the supposed phantom was called the Flying Dutchman. From the Dutch the English seamen got the infatuation, and there are very few Indiamen, but what has some one on board, who pretends to have seen the apparition.

The tale of a ghost ship was then laced with a curse, though the reason for its particular doom is uncertain. All sorts of macabre layers were added by successive authors, to the point where we have a story of a captain, struggling to round the Cape of Good Hope in a storm. Refusing to go into harbour for the night he said “May I be eternally damned if I do, though I should beat about here till the Day of Judgment.” Thereby he spoke his own doom!

For the Dutchman there is no hope at Good Hope. It was Heinrich Heine who threw in the possibility of redemption in The Memoirs of Mister von Schnabelewopski, a satirical novel published in 1833. In this he allows the captain to come ashore every seven years to seek true love, thereby finding salvation in the devotion of a woman. This was the spin that inspired Wagner’s own romantic adaptation in the story of the Dutchman and Senta, the one woman who finally proves to be true, even unto death. It’s rather ironic considering that Heine was a Jew and Wagner a notorious anti-Semite!

Yes, OK, there is, like Tristan and Isolde, another ‘love death’ here. But the sacrifice of Senta seems much more human, altogether far, far less tortuous. The whole thing appeals to my romantic sensibilities. Seduced and deluded I may be, but I like to console myself with notions of love greater than death.

So, all in all, I’m quite looking forward to seeing and hearing it in it's full glory, with James Creswell as the Dutchman, and Orla Boyan as Senta, his one true love. I feel certain that it will be a memorable evening. Afterwards we shall have an intimate supper for two, a return to less ethereal forms of romance. You see, unlike Senta, I’m not thinking of throwing myself off a headland…not just yet awhile. :-)

16 comments:

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    1. Who may have been partially Jewish. :-)

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  2. Ugh--Wagner!

    Nietzsche was at his most unreliable when commenting on either music or women . . . and, perhaps worse, he was quite uncharacteristically not even amusing . . .

    To me, the point is not that Nietzsche (partially) woke up in time to write DER FALL WAGNER, but that he was ever seduced by that loathsome man Wagner, his awful wife, and his metaphysically boring music in the first place . . .

    To this day I can understand and sympathise with Fritz's deep attraction to Lou Andreas-Salome . . . but Wagner?

    At his best, in brief passages, Wagner is the Led Zeppelin of the 19th century--his music gets us all worked up and emotional, even though we have no reason why we are feeling that way . . . but the tedium, and particularly the unforgivable Weltanshauung associated with those moments of mindless rapture, is too high a price for this listener to pay!

    Give me the B Minor Mass any day, any time . . . !

    Now--do you want to know how I really feel about Wagner? :) Sorry about the rant . . .

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    1. No, Chris; I quite understand. Wagner was a great seducer and Nietzsche reacted eventually against his seductive power, going from one extreme to another. Wagner, in so many ways, was possibly the most monstrous egoist who ever lived.

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  3. You might like to sample some of the supernatural nautical fiction of William Hope Hodgson, such as The Ghost Pirates.

    The House on the Borderland is well worth a look, too.

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    1. Calvin, I think I have The Ghost Pirates in my collection somewhere. I read The House on the Borderland last year (those pigs!), a story with strong Lovecraft overtones.

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  4. Ana, I certainly agree that Wagner's music is at best, ponderous, but if you consider how REALLY difficult it is to sing standard German, (a language consisting of "much hissing and spitting" :-P) he did pretty well to put together lyrics that were actually sing-able.

    As an instrumentalist, one of my favourite pieces has always been his Overture from "Tannhäuser", where I (whilst playing Bass Clarinet) essentially had a lovely duet with a French Horn.

    I'm not sure what to think about the legend of the "Flying Dutchman". While I believe that there are such things as ghosts, I subscribe to the model that they represent "misplaced" or "lost" souls. I do NOT believe that an object assembled by men of wood, canvas, hemp and a LOT of nails has a "soul" of its own for it to lose. So what have all of these people been seeing over the course of so many years?

    Who knows? In any case, I hope you and your beau have a wonderful evening together at the Opera and beyond! :-)

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    1. CB, one view is that is that it's an optical illusion. George V, when he was a young prince serving in the navy, reported a sighting of the ghost ship. But, as you rightly say, who knows? As always there are more things etc. etc. Thanks. :-)

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  5. It is a bit like the Ancient Mariner with the permission to dress up in leather. Have a great time Ana.

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    1. Richard, I love that analogy! Thank you; I shall. :-)

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  6. May have been ? Many were in the Wehrmacht.

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  7. I know what you mean but I find the Rienzi Overture inspiring rather than depressive, Ana:


    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s19dwaXjS6M

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    1. Yes, that's an early one too, Nobby.

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  8. Thank you for the great synopsis and descriptions. I look forward to hearing more after you've seen the production.

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    1. Thanks, Jean. It's nice to see you here. :-)

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