[Met Performance] CID:155010
New production
Der Fliegende Holländer {45} Metropolitan Opera House: 11/9/1950.

(Debut: Hans Hotter, Sven Nilsson, Charles Elson

Metropolitan Opera House
November 9, 1950

New production


Dutchman................Hans Hotter [Debut]
Senta...................Astrid Varnay
Erik....................Set Svanholm
Daland..................Sven Nilsson [Debut]
Mary....................Margaret Harshaw
Steersman...............Thomas Hayward

Conductor...............Fritz Reiner

Director................Herbert Graf
Set designer............Robert Edmond Jones
Set designer............Charles Elson [Debut]
Costume designer........Mary Percy Schenck

[Charles Elson's sets were based on sketches by Robert Edmond Jones.]

Der Fliegende Holländer received eight performances this season.

Review of Robert Sabin in Musical America:

The "Flying Dutchman" Brings Two Debuts

When the curtain opened on the first act of Wagner's "Der Fliegende Hollander," the Met Opera's second new production and its second performance of the season on Nov. 9, the audience burst into applause, for it was clear that the reforms in staging revealed in the [first] night performance of Verdi's "Don Carlo" were being continued in the Wagner opera. Nor was it long until the two new singers in the cast gave further evidence that the regime of Rudolf Bing is determined to bring us the outstanding vocalists of the world, as far as is it is possible. Hans Hotter, the German baritone who took the role the Dutchman, is a great artist, gifted with an extraordinarily powerful voice and dramatic talent of the highest order. And Sven Nilsson, Swedish bass from the Royal Opera in Stockholm, sang sturdily and acted most intelligently in the thankless part of Daland

In Astrid Varnay, the Senta, the company already possessed one of the most gifted young Wagnerian sopranos of the day. Set Svanholm's manly and passionate Erik provided an excellent foil for her, and Thomas Hayward, as the Steersman, and Margaret Harshaw, as Mary, both created characters instead of stock operatic figures. Fritz Reiner conducted ably.

The settings, designed by Charles Elson after sketches by Robert Edmond Jones, revealed a faithfulness to Wagner's intentions that contrasted most happily with certain previous attempts in Metropolitan opera productions to improve upon his instructions. In his invaluable "Remarks on the Performance of Der Fliegende Hollander," written about 1853, ten years after the first production of the opera, in 1843, Wagner gave vital clues to future producers and singers of the work. "The ships and the sea, in particular, demand from the régisseur an unusual amount of care. The opera's first scene has to bring the spectator into that mood in which it becomes possible for him to conceive the mysterious figure of the Flying Dutchman himself. It must therefore be handled with exceptional care; the sea between the headlands must be shown as boisterous as possible; the treatment of the ship cannot be naturalistic enough; little touches, such as the heeling of the ship when struck by an extra big wave (between the two verses of the Steersman's song) must be very drastically carried out. Special attention is demanded by the lighting, with its manifold changes; to make the nuances of storm in the first act effective, a skillful use of painted gauzes, as far as quite the middle distance of the stage, is indispensable."

Herbert Graf's stage direction was almost uniformly excellent. The landing of Daland's ship in the first act was skillfully handled. Despite the impossible proportions of the crew, necessitated by Wagner's tremendous choruses, Mr. Graf succeeded in dispersing the men and keeping them busy in such a manner as to avoid static and conventional stage groupings.

The second-act women's chorus was really ingeniously directed, with a sense of plastic composition and activity that did not disturb the dramatic line of the music. Mr. Graf could improve the last act, however, for here he has massed his choristers too obviously. The waving of baskets and loaves of bread is not a convincing representation of a roistering feast, and there is too much conventional gesture in this episode. Mr. Graf should also rework the business between the Dutchman and Senta in the long duet in the second act. It is disturbing to have them both sing industriously, full face to the audience, far apart, during long portions of the dialogue and then suddenly rediscover each other's existence. Mr. Graf has made the most of Erik's dream narrative, however, building it to an exciting climax, as Senta's lover rushes away in horror and despair. Erik is, musically speaking, the orphan of the opera, with the most conventionally operatic passages to sing, and very little to work with dramatically, but Mr. Svanholm and Mr. Graf have succeeded in making him a sympathetic figure instead of the stick he seems in many productions.

The composer himself was the first to point out the importance of the Dutchman in his opera. "Upon the happy issue of this title role depends the real success of the whole opera; its exponent must succeed in rousing and maintaining the deepest pity, and this he will be able to do if he strictly observes the following chief characteristics." And he proceeds to describe the majestic bearing of the Dutchman, and to give minutely detailed instructions for his singing of the long monologue in the first act. Mr. Hotter followed them with the creative instinct of a profoundly gifted actor and singer. He never let himself be betrayed into exaggerated stridings to and fro, However deep the passion, however agonized the feeling, he breathed into the voice part and kept the utmost calm in his outer bearing until his passionate outburst of despair.

He is a man of imposing stature both physically and mentally. When the spotlight fell upon him at his first appearance, I was reminded by his stature of Feodor Chaliapin. Mr. Hotter had the same magnetism, the same power to project the emotional essence of a role before he has moved a muscle or uttered a note. His voice was magnificent, powerful throughout the entire range, rich in overtones and produced with a variety of color and flexibility that gives it endless dramatic possibilities. In this performance it tired in the third act and took on a nasal quality, as Mr. Hotter changed his placement in order to insure control of pitch and focus. But this tension may have been the result of the strain of a debut. In any case, Mr. Hotter had already poured forth such a wealth of flawless tones that he could have mimed the last pages of his role and still triumphed. His middle voice had a superb virility, warmth and evenness of texture. Furthermore, he had that care and consideration for his fellow artists and awareness of the composer's overall intentions in the music that distinguish the great operatic interpreter from the superficial egoist gifted with a fine voice.

The role of Daland does not offer a tithe of the glorious opportunities afforded by that of the Dutchman. But Mr. Nilsson was able to demonstrate that he is a sterling artist, with a robust, ringing voice. Wagner asks for considerable flexibility from all of his singers in this opera, and Mr. Nilsson had no trouble with the virtuosic elements of his part, despite the weight and volume of his voice. Like so many Scandinavian singers, he seemed gifted with an inexhaustible supply of physical vitality. He observed Wagner's plea "not to drag his role into the region of the positively comic," and was careful to make Daland "a rough-hewn figure from the life of everyday."

Astrid Varnay has long since proved her eminence as a singing actress. As Senta, she surmounted a cruelly difficult task of dramatic projection with complete success. Senta can easily be one of opera's most wooden heroines, but Wagner himself (as always) pointed the way to a gripping conception of the character. "Let not the dreamy side of her nature be conceived in the sense of a modern, sickly sentimentality! Senta, on the contrary, is an altogether robust Northern maid, and even all her apparent sentimentality she is thoroughly naive. Only in the heart of an entirely naive girl, surrounded by the idiosyncrasies of Northern Nature, could impressions such as those of the ballad of the Flying Dutchman and the picture of the pallid seaman call forth so wonderfully strong a bent as the impulse to redeem the doomed; with her this takes the outward form of all active monomania such, indeed, as can only be found in quite naive natures."

From the moment the curtain went up on the second act, and Senta was disclosed, seated in her chair, lost in contemplation of the Dutchman's portrait, one sensed both the robustness and naiveté of her character. Miss Varnay sang her first wordless phrase, which breaks so startlingly into the spinning chorus, with all exquisite pianissimo, and in that phrase established the dreamy, almost fanatical side of Senta's nature. And when she burst out at the silly girls, "0 schweigt ! Mit eurem tollen Lachen wollt ihr mich ernstlich böse machen ?" ("Be still! do you want to make me really angry with your stupid laughter ?"), it was obvious that Senta was no weakling.

At the Dutchman's entrance, she once again proved that she has the quality that is perhaps most important in a Wagnerian interpreter, the ability to remain motionless and yet project the emotional essence of the music and drama. Wagner was careful to reassure his artists on this point: "The performers need not lie afraid of wearying by this situation; it is a matter of experience that this is just the one which most powerfully engrosses the spectator, and most fittingly prepares him for the following scene." Miss Varnay also succeeded in conveying Senta's mounting excitement as she tries to convince the Dutchman that she has been aware of her necessary sacrifice from the beginning, no easy task in view of the complexity of the ensembles in the last pages of the opera. Vocally, there was much to praise and little to question in her performance. Occasionally her voice was not clearly focused and she sometimes pinched her top tones, especially the high Bs that Wagner sprinkled so liberally through the part. She has proved in times past that she can sing a glorious high C with flawless support and fullness. Let us hope that she will bring her vocal production to the same level of unvarying security that her acting already possesses.

Mr. Svanholm's Erik, like Miss Varnay's Senta, followed Wagner's indication to the letter. He was no sentimental "whiner," but "stormy, impulsive and gloomy like every man who lives alone (particularly in the Northern highlands)." Consequently, the huntsman's desperate efforts to save Senta from the Dutchman were genuinely exciting, as Wagner planned them to be. Mr. Svanholm sang the part forcefully, if with occasional dryness of tone quality and apparent effort in the climaxes. Mr. Hayward, as the Steersman, was excellent, as soon as he gave up his efforts to be a Heldentenor, which he fortunately did, after the first few phrases in the [first] scene. And Miss Harshaw will be an effective Mary as soon as she has mastered the words and diction of her role, no very crushing task, since she has precisely 25 lines of verse to sing.

To the chorus, trained by Kurt Adler, should go a special bouquet. The sailor's choruses are one of the most important parts of the opera and the Metropolitan chorus sang them splendidly. The attacks were perfect, the tone quality manly and the dramatic feeling of the situation vividly conveyed. The women, also sang with real artistry, notably in the spinning chorus.

At the beginning of the opera, Fritz Reiner seemed tense and nervous. The overture was not wild enough, and it was rhythmically rigid. But as the first act progressed Mr. Reiner conducted with increasing warmth and flexibility. If "Die Fliegende Holländer" was not one of his most distinguished achievements at the Metropolitan, it bore in a hundred places the marks of his sensitive ear and fine craftsmanship. The few minor slips in the playing of the orchestra were negligible and the tonal balance and general clarity were impeccable.

Photograph of Hans Hotter as the Dutchman by H. Holdt, Munich.

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