29 January 2015 at 12.52pm | Comment on this article
Wagner was fascinated by outcasts and wanderers for much of his operatic career – think of the remorseful Tannhäuser or the ‘pure fool’ Parsifal. The Dutchman is one of Wagner’s earliest wanderer-heroes. The passion and introspection of his Act I aria anticipates Wagner’s later intense solos for bass-baritone, including the monologues of Hans Sachs (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) and Wotan (Der Ring des Nibelungen).
The Dutchman’s aria pays tribute to the structure of the Italian bel canto aria (Wagner was an admirer of Bellini) while subtly subverting it. It follows a traditional pattern: dramatic opening recitative; first section of the aria; arioso transitional section (halfway between recitative and song); and a rapid closing section. However, both parts of the aria are quick (unlike many Italian two-part arias, which have slow, reflective opening sections), and the divisions between sections increasingly blurred. The rapid fluctuations in mood are also uniquely Wagnerian.
The aria opens with dark-toned chords for double basses, tuba and bassoon and chromatic wave-like figures in cellos and violas as the Dutchman takes his first steps on land. The chromatic sextuplets imply his unsteadiness after seven years on board the ship – Wagner noted in his precise stage instructions how ‘his rolling gait… is peculiar to sailors who have spent a long time away at sea’. The Dutchman sings his first lines unaccompanied as he meditates that ‘The time has come’: once again he is cast up on land to try to find redemption. Surging scales in the orchestra illustrate his despair as he remembers past disappointments. His mood remains volatile throughout the following recitative, shifting rapidly from resigned exhaustion to bursts of anger.
A drum-roll leads from the recitative to the first part of the aria, based on material from the overture associated with the Dutchman’s endless voyaging. To a storm-tossed accompaniment the Dutchman describes his perpetual wanderings, and his attempts to end his suffering by wrecking his ship or attacking pirates. The rich, dark-hued orchestral textures thin out dramatically as the Dutchman remembers how even the fiercest corsairs fled his ship making the sign of the cross, then build up again in a furious climax as the Dutchman, in rising, strongly accented phrases, cries: ‘Nowhere a grave! Never death!’ Fragments of the storm motif are heard in the strings as the music quietly subsides.
The Dutchman’s mood shifts again, from agony to earnest beseeching, reflected by a move from the 6/8 time signature to a slow 4/4. The Dutchman begs his guardian angel to tell him if the promise of salvation was merely offered in mockery; he sings in sustained, almost hymn-like phrases, accompanied by delicate string tremolos and held chords in the wind. This gentler mood does not last. To another orchestral outburst the Dutchman cries out in anguish ‘Vain hope! Terrible, futile folly!’. A sudden silence, underpinned by quietly rolling timpani, is broken by growling chords in the low strings and tubas as we move into the aria’s final section.
In long, ascending phrases the Dutchman yearns for Judgement Day, in a vocal line that veers between sustained singing and furious declamation. The dark orchestral timbre, of furious swirling strings and vehement interjections from the brass and percussion, adds further force to this vivid aural picture of the Dutchman’s nihilistic despair. After his final declaration ‘Eternal Destruction, take me!’ trombones sound the opera’s opening ‘Dutchman motif’, over demonic major chords. Then, terrifyingly, we hear the ghostly crew quietly echo their captain’s words. A brief sighing figure in the strings highlights their misery. The aria closes with the ‘Dutchman motif’ played very quietly on the horns – an unsettling end to this brilliant depiction of a mind in torment.
The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Marina Hobson OBE and the Wagner Production Syndicate.