The opera first premiered on January 2, 1843 at the Royal Saxon Court Theatre, UK.
Performed in German with English titles.
An icy storm drives the sea captain Daland's ship miles beyond his home on the coast. As the sky suddenly darkens and the waters again grow rough, another ship, a ghostly schooner, arrives and drops anchor next to Daland's. Its captain, the Flying Dutchman, steps ashore, despairing of his fate. He once swore he would sail around the Cape of Good Hope if it took him forever, and the devil took him at his word. Once every seven years he may leave his ship in search of a woman who will redeem him from his deathless wandering if she gives him faithful, absolute love; failing this, he is condemned to roam the seas until the Day of Judgment. He tells Daland of his plight and offers a reward of gold and jewels for a night's lodging. Then, discovering that Daland has a young daughter, the Dutchman asks for her hand in marriage. Daland, seeing the extent of the stranger's wealth, immediately agrees. Instructing the Dutchman to follow, Daland sets sail for his home port.
At Daland's house, his daughter, Senta, dreamily watches village women as they spin and make sails. They tease the girl about her suitor, the huntsman Erik, but she remains in a trance. Staring at a portrait of the Flying Dutchman, she sings a ballad about the phantom captain. With burning intensity she prays that she may be the one to save him. Erik enters and, after the others have left, asks Senta to plead his cause with Daland. Noticing her preoccupation with the Dutchman's picture, he relates a frightening dream in which he saw her embrace the Dutchman and sail away in his ship. Senta exclaims that this is her own dream as well, and the despairing Erik rushes away. A moment later, the Dutchman himself stands before the girl. He tells her of his sad lot, and she vows to be faithful to him unto death. Daland blesses the union.
At the harbor, the villagers celebrate the sailors' return. They invite the Dutchman's crew to join them but are frightened away by the ghostly crew's weird chanting. Senta soon rushes in, pursued by Erik, who insists she has pledged her love to him. Overhearing this, the Dutchman believes himself betrayed and jumps aboard his ship. As horrified villagers crowd the shore, he reveals his name and nature and sets sail. Senta runs to the top of a cliff, triumphantly proclaiming herself faithful unto death, and leaps into the sea.
-- courtesy of Opera News
Richard Wagner was the son either of the police actuary Friedrich Wagner, who died soon after his birth, or of his mother's friend the painter, actor and poet Ludwig Geyer, whom she married in August 1814. He went to school in Dresden and then Leipzig; at 15 he wrote a play, at 16 his first compositions. In 1831 he went to Leipzig University, also studying music with the Thomaskantor, C.T. Weinlig; a symphony was written and successfully performed in 1832. In 1833 he became chorus master at the Wurzburg theatre and wrote the text and music of his first opera, "Die Feen"; this remained unheard, but his next, "Das Liebesverbot," written in 1833, was staged in 1836. By then he had made his debut as an opera conductor with a small company which however went bankrupt soon after performing his opera. He married the singer Minna Planer in 1836 and went with her to Konigsberg where he became musical director at the theatre, but he soon left and took a similar post in Riga where he began his next opera, "Rienzi," and did much conducting, especially of Beethoven.
In 1839 they slipped away from creditors in Riga, by ship to London and then to Paris, where he was befriended by Meyerbeer and did hack-work for publishers and theatres. He also worked on the text and music of an opera on the "Flying Dutchman" legend; but in 1842 "Rienzi," a large-scale opera with a political theme set in imperial Rome, was accepted for Dresden and Wagner went there for its highly successful premiere. Its theme reflects something of Wagner's own politics (he was involved in the semi-revolutionary, intellectual "Young Germany" movement). "Die fliegende Hollander" ("The Flying Dutchman"), given the next year, was less well received, though a much tauter musical drama, beginning to move away from the "number opera" tradition and strong in its evocation of atmosphere, especially the supernatural and the raging seas (inspired by the stormy trip from Riga). Wagner was now appointed joint Kapellmeister at the Dresden court.
The theme of redemption through a woman's love, in the "Dutchman," recurs in Wagner's operas (and perhaps his life). In 1845 "Tannhauser" was completed and performed and "Lohengrin" begun. In both Wagner moves towards a more continuous texture with semi-melodic narrative and a supporting orchestral fabric helping convey its sense. In 1848 he was caught up in the revolutionary fervor and the next year fled to Weimar (where Liszt helped him) and then Switzerland (there was also a spell in France); politically suspect, he was unable to enter Germany for 11 years. In Zurich, he wrote in 1850-51 his ferociously anti-semitic "Jewishness in Music" (some of it an attack on Meyerbeer) and his basic statement on musical theatre, "Opera and Drama"; he also began sketching the text and music of a series of operas on the Nordic and Germanic sagas. By 1853 the text for this four-night cycle (to be "The Nibelung's Ring") was written, printed and read to friends - who included a generous patron Otto Wesendonck, and his wife Mathilde, who loved him, wrote poems that he set, and inspired "Tristan und Isolde" - conceived in 1854 and completed five years later, by which time more than half of "The Ring" was written. In 1855 he conducted in London; tension with Minna led to his going to Paris in 1858-9. 1860 saw them both in Paris, where the next year he revived "Tannhauser" in revised form for French taste, but it was literally shouted down, partly for political reasons. In 1862 he was allowed freely into Germany; that year he and the ill and childless Minna parted (she died in 1866). In 1863 he gave concerts in Vienna, Russia etc; the next year King Ludwig II invited him to settle in Bavaria, near Munich, discharging his debts and providing him with money.
Wagner did not stay long in Bavaria, because of opposition at Ludwig's court, especially when it was known that he was having an affair with Cosima, the wife of the conductor Hans van Bulow (she was Liszt's daughter); Bulow (who condoned it) directed the "Tristan" premiere in 1865. Here Wagner, in depicting every shade of sexual love, developed a style richer and more chromatic than anyone had previously attempted, using dissonance and its urge for resolution in a continuing pattern to build up tension and a sense of profound yearning; Act 2 is virtually a continuous love duet, touching every emotion from the tenderest to the most passionately erotic. Before returning to the "Ring," Wagner wrote, during the mid-1860s, "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg": this is in a quite different vein, a comedy set in 16th-century Nuremberg, in which a noble poet-musician wins, through his victory in a music contest - a victory over pedants who stick to the foolish old rules - the hand of his beloved, fame and riches. (The analogy with Wagner's view of himself is obvious.) The music is less chromatic than that of "Tristan," warm and good-humoured, often contrapuntal; unlike the mythological figures of his other operas the characters here have real humanity.
The opera was given, under Bulow, in 1868; Wagner had been living at Tribschen, near Lucerne, since 1866, and that year Cosima formally joined him; they had two children when in 1870 they married. The first two "Ring" operas, "Das Rheingold" and "Die Walkure," were given in Munich, on Ludwig's insistence, in 1869 and 1870; Wagner however was anxious to have a special festival opera house for the complete cycle and spent much energy trying to raise money for it. Eventually, when he had almost despaired, Ludwig came to the rescue and in 1874 - the year the fourth opera, "Gotterdammerung," was finished - provided the necessary support. The house was built at Bayreuth, designed by Wagner as the home for his concept of the "Gesamtkunstwerk" ("total art work"- an alliance of music, poetry, the visual arts, dance etc). The first festival, an artistic triumph but a financial disaster - was held there in 1876, when the complete "Ring" was given. The "Ring" is about 18 hours music, held together by an immensely detailed network of themes, or leitmotifs, each of which has some allusive meaning: a character, a concept, an object etc. They change and develop as the ideas within the opera develop. They are heard in the orchestra, not merely as "labels" but carrying the action, sometimes informing the listener of connections of ideas or the thoughts of those on the stage. There are no "numbers" in the "Ring"; the musical texture is made up of narrative and dialogue, in which the orchestra partakes. The work is not merely a story about gods, humans and dwarfs but embodies reflections on every aspect of the human condition. It has been interpreted as socialist, fascist, Jungian, prophetic, as a parable about industrial society, and much more.
In 1877 Wagner conducted in London, hoping to recoup Bayreuth losses; later in the year he began a new opera, "Parsifal." He continued his musical and polemic writings, concentrating on "racial purity." He spent most of 1880 in Italy. "Parsifal," a sacred festival drama, again treating redemption but through the acts of communion and renunciation on the stage, was given at the Bayreuth Festival in 1882. He went to Venice for the winter, and died there in February of the heart trouble that had been with him for some years. His body was returned by gondola and train for burial at Bayreuth. Wagner did more than any other composer to change music, and indeed to change art and thinking about it. His life and his music arouse passions like no other composer s. His works are hated as much as they are worshipped; but no-one denies their greatness.
- Courtesy of PBS.org
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