Major Operas | Der Fliegende Holländer by Richard Wagner | High Romantic

The Flying Dutchman

Initially a one-act opera, Der Fliegende Holländer was later expanded to three. Wagner was anxious to make sure it was performed in the way he wished, and wrote detailed production notes for the directors and singers. He also conducted the first performance at the Hofoper or Court Opera in Dresden on 2 January 1843.

Although Wagner regarded Holländer as his first ‘total work of art’, this music drama was too advanced for his audience. However, by the time it premiered at Drury Lane, London on 23 July 1870 – the first Wagner opera to be seen in the capital – taste in opera had moved on in Wagner’s direction. Holländer became, as it remains, a defining work of Romanticism in opera. It used music to create ‘sound pictures’ with a new, hightened realism (e.g. the storm in the overture). Wagner may have used personal experience for this passage: during a voyage in 1839, his ship was almost wrecked by storms three times before finding safety in a Norwegian harbour.

Composed 1840–41; rev. 1846, 1853
Premiered 1843, Dresden
Libretto by the composer

Act I

As a violent storm rages, Captain Daland and his crew take refuge offshore for the night. A sinister ship with blood red sails draws up beside them. It belongs to the Flying Dutchman, who has been condemned by the Devil to sail the seas eternally. His only chance of salvation is finding a woman who will love him faithfully until death, and he returns to shore once every seven years in search of such a woman. Lamenting his fate and hoping that death will soon free him from his wretched existence, the Dutchman goes ashore.

Daland awakes and joins the Dutchman, questioning him. Learning that they are only a few miles from Daland’s home, the Dutchman asks for hospitality, offering handsome payment. His crew bring forth some treasure and Daland is impressed; he offers the Dutchman not only hospitality but also his daughter Senta’s hand in marriage in return for more riches. The Dutchman, although apprehensive, hopes that he may finally be saved from the curse. The ships set sail for Daland’s hometown.

Act II

In Daland’s house the nurse Mary and some village girls sit spinning, while Senta gazes dreamily at a portrait on the wall depicting the legendary Flying Dutchman. The girls mock Senta for falling in love with the portrait when she is being courted by the handsome Erik. Senta sings the ballad of the Flying Dutchman and prays for his salvation, hoping herself to be his saviour. Erik overhears and, entering, announces that Daland’s ship has been sighted. While the girls rush off to greet their sweethearts, Erik asks Senta to agree to their marriage. Avoiding the question, she suggests that they go and greet Daland. Erik is annoyed by Senta’s infatuation with the portrait. He tells of his dream, in which Daland returned from a voyage with a man who resembled the face in the portrait....

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