Richard Wagner, "Der fliegende Hollaender" ("The Flying Dutchman"), performed by baritone Hans Hotter (the Dutchman), soprano Viorica Ursuleac (Senta), bass Georg Hann (Daland), tenor Karl Ostertag (Erik) and tenor Franz Klarwein (the Steersman), and Clemens Krauss conducting the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra and Chorus (Preiser Records Mono 90250).
When it came to self-appraisal, Richard Wagner was no shrinking violet. But when he said of himself that "so far as I know, I can find in the life of no artist so striking a transformation, in so short a time, as is evident between 'Rienzi' and 'The Flying Dutchman,' " he was on the money.
"Rienzi" was a grand exercise in spectacular but superficial Meyerbeerism. In the "Dutchman," which portrays the accursed central character's unceasing search for redeeming love, the 30-year-old composer created a new form of opera: A music drama in which characters are no longer described from the outside but persuade us that they have been created from the inside out.
In the great Act I monologue, "Die Frist ist um" ("The time is up"), for example, the Dutchman's anguished pessimism is expressed ways that stretch the conventions of recitative, aria and stretta, and the orchestra plays a new role in letting us know more about the protagonist than he himself tells us.
This role was never performed more powerfully than by the German baritone, Hans Hotter. Unfortunately, Hotter's prime years fell in the 1940s -- when World War II and the economic hard times that followed in Europe made the making of studio recordings difficult, if not impossible. But Hotter sang the "Dutchman" in March of 1944 in a broadcast from Munich conducted by Clemens Krauss. This wartime broadcast, which was captured on tape, made its first appearance on records in America (on the Mercury label) as early as 1944 -- the year it was performed in enemy territory (!) -- and has circulated intermittently on records ever since.
Its most recent incarnation is on the Preiser label. If you care about Wagner and haven't already acquired this performance, do so now. The dramatic burden of "The Flying Dutchman" is carried essentially by the central character, and no singer conveys the accursed Dutchman's torment and demonic intensity as remarkably as Hotter. The baritone was then only 35 -- the youthful bloom on his voice made it possible for him to sing Verdi's high baritone roles -- but he already had the mastery of tone and words and the dark quality that was to make him so noble an interpreter of Wotan in "The Ring."
Some members of the cast are almost equally impressive. Georg Hann (Daland) was an incisive, dark bass with a personality and a command of color and expression that matched Hotter's. Viorica Ursuleac (Senta) was probably past her prime in 1944 -- her voice sometimes turns ugly -- but she sings with conviction and intelligence. And if Karl Ostertag's Erik is heavy-handed and unmusical, Franz Klarwein's Steerman is robust, powerful and beautiful-sounding.
The leadership of Krauss, Richard Strauss' favorite conductor, is another powerful attraction. In the famous overture, Krauss makes us feel the turbulent sea splashing in our faces; and his attention throughout to pulse, balance and dramatic sweep, as well as to the precision of the singers and musicians, continues to make this vivid, if somewhat primitive-sounding, account of the "Dutchman" the best available.
HEAR THE MUSIC
To hear an excerpt of Richard Wagner's "Der fliegende Hollaender" ("The Flying Dutchman"), call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the code 6190 after you hear the greeting.