In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

A Note from the Conductor of "The Flying Dutchman"

Apr 16, 2013 10:57:00 AM
By BLO Staff

David Angus at the Wagner Society of NY
are very privileged to be the first American company to have access to the
critical edition of Wagner's very first version of The Flying Dutchman, which he then modified many times throughout
his life.  The more often played standard version is based on a score from
1896 which was collated by conductor Felix Weingartner from many sources, and
included everything that Wagner (and perhaps others) had ever added or
changed—which was often only relevant to particular productions or venues.
 The problem for us is that many of these changes were made because Wagner
himself wanted to alter perceptions of his own development, and to pretend that
he was already writing in a much more mature style than was actually true.
 The surprising effect of this is that the resulting piece, in its
familiar form, is neither what it originally was— a strong, light and energetic
early Romantic score— nor one of Wagner's true Music Dramas, his later
weightier and more symphonic works.  By removing all these accretions and
performing the work in its original version, we actually get a cleaner and more
energetic sound that is much more direct in its impact.
original score set the story in Scotland, and Wagner included very clear
references to Scottish music, particularly in the chorus music-- the drones and
repeated grace notes that characterize bagpipe music, as well as reference to
actual Scottish folksongs.  At the last moment, he moved the location of
the opera in order to be able to claim an autobiographical link with his own
sea journey during which he sheltered in Norway, but nothing dramatic is gained
by that move, and it denies the evidence in the music.  


the years he also made many changes to the instrumentation, particularly to the
brass writing, but his original instruments would have been very much lighter
than modern instruments and so there would not have been the balance problems
that we find nowadays.  In our performances we are imitating the original
sound as far as possible, using natural instruments (without valves) and
narrow-bore trombones, for example. 
David Angus at the Wagner Society of NY
would take a whole book to list all the changes, but I will point out two
particular examples.  At the end of the opera, and in the parallel music
at the end of the overture, Wagner later added a much slower sentimental ending
(with a big harp solo and reference to Senta's redemption motif) which
interrupts the high energy race to the end and destroys all the momentum.
 This is the only music that the harp plays in the whole opera, and it
weakens the dramatic intensity at a critical moment.  We will not be
performing this addition, of course!
other example is Wagner's later addition of many directions of expression and
tempo, some of which again rob the music of its momentum.  The most
significant of these is at the climax of the development of the overture, where
Senta's theme interrupts 4 times in a row.  In the original, there is not
a single tempo indication at these points, and the music was clearly intended
to continue at exactly the same speed, but a tradition has evolved of slamming
the brakes on and performing these few bars at half or even a third of the main
tempo, returning to tempo for a few bars, slamming on the brakes again, etc. This destroys the long build-up of excitement, at precisely the moment when it
should reach its climax!  Wagner himself later added the marking un
poco ritenuto
, which surely could hardly suggest under half-tempo?  If
you are used to hearing the traditional version, our performance without change
of tempo will sound very strange to you, but I am convinced that it is much
stronger without this stopping and starting. The only possible defense for
the much slower tempo - that the nature of the theme itself necessarily demands
the tempo reduction- is proved invalid by the theme's later appearance in the coda
at a very quick tempo that no one contests.  If it can be played quickly
here, why not earlier?
approach throughout has been to consider all the traditions that have evolved
in the performance of this opera, and to question whether or not they really
improve the music.  We haven't thrown everything out, but those who know
this piece well will notice many changes, and, I hope, a real heightening of
energy and drama throughout. This is a very strong and original early Romantic
opera, not a pale shadow of what was to come!
David Angus
BLO Music Director


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