Monday, May 18, 2015


No wonder Wagner had his great first success with The Flying Dutchman. It was his first mature work to have that mix of elements that make his operas so distinctive and irresistible – that correct mixture of psychological insight and mythic imagination that became the hallmark of all his later triumphs.

Wagner's first library was lost after his first household, which he shared with his first wife Minna, was liquidated to pay for his constant debts. But he had already made himself into an expert on myth and folktale, and had followed closely the Grimm brothers of their various researches into folklore, before they compiled their famous collection of Märchen. It was in Dutchman that Wagner first displayed his genius for grafting and joining together various mythic elements into unique characters and entities that go on to resound so deeply to his audiences. Not til we come to Joseph Campbell in the 20th century do we find someone who has made as much of a study of elements and the science of myth as Richard Wagner.

The central figure of the Dutchman is formed from various similar accounts of cursed ships and ghost ships that appear in folklore. The nameless Dutchman – he is really the captain of the ghost ship of that name – is, in Wagner's version, cursed to sail the seas for all eternity because he cursed god while trying to get around the Cape of Good Hope. He can only be saved by the undying love of a mortal woman. Since he is cursed to roam the seas on his ghost ship, Wagner conceives a dispensation for him (another grafted mythic element): every seven years he is allowed to go on land to find this redeeming woman.

After centuries of seven-yearly attempts, the Dutchman is in hopeless despair of finding such a saviour. Even if he finds a woman who will pledge her sole love to him, that pledge is virtually impossible to demonstrate. She either has to permanently come onto the ship with him – which would be lethal to her, even though it would prove the permanence of her love for him – or else he leaves her onshore, where she is bound to become unfaithful during his next seven year stint at sea. There is a further stipulation that if, after swearing her love to him, she becomes unfaithful she too will be eternally damned by the Dutchman's subsequent curse for being untrue. Thus he has left a trail of cursed women who have been destroyed by their own faithlessness. This is an obsessive serial philanderer not unlike Don Juan, but one that wreaks a curse upon the women who are unable to sustain their total love for him.

This impasse can only be broken by a kind of romantic destiny unique in Wagner. His plots frequently have a central element of lovers destined by the fate in the narrative, to be together. Lohengrin comes specifically to save Elsa and be her husband. Siegmund and Sieglinde have been conceived from the start to make a couple, and Siegfried and Brünhilde gradually realize their destiny to be together, and, in an ultimate Wagnerian twist of irony, to betray one another. In the comedic Meistersinger, we recognize the intended couple Elizabeth and Walter, whose eventual marriage is the aim of the plot, right from the beginning.

The romantic destiny between Senta and the Dutchman is already operative at the beginning of the opera, where we see seemingly disconnected events leading to it. Not only does the Dutchman's ship appear to Daaland and his crew, and an actual monetary contract is then made to line up Daaland's daughter with the Dutchman, but when we meet Senta in the Second Act she has been fantasizing over her idea of the Dutchman, knowing all about the curse and clearly wanting to sacrifice herself to save him even before actually meeting him. She is not an unwilling victim but actively seeks her fate. The major obstacle in the story is the actual acceptance by both Senta and The Dutchman of their mutual fatal involvement. Senta is actually a rather morbid gothic character obsessed with sacrificing herself for this phantom. She is already alienated from normal society because of this obsession. The Dutchman is clearly in despair of ever finding anyone like this to be his saviour.

The two operas Wagner wrote before The Flying Dutchman have none of these special elements of predestination: Das Liebesverbot is an oddly bel-canto treatment of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, with many of its barbs removed, and Rienzi is a very literally political opera about a Roman mediaeval demagogue whose idealism almost triumphs over his persistent political adversaries, who however ultimately tragically destroy him at the end. There is no element of the supernatural in either of these very different seeming operas. Wagner's first opera however, Die Feen – which he wrote when he was around twenty – is full of supernatural elements, and it is an early precursor of his fascination with the fabulous.

The worlds Wagner subsequently represented on his stage after Rienzi only have the most superficial resemblance to our reality. There is usually some sort of magic or supernatural force that is seen to be at work. If it is not some outright active witchcraft – as in Lohengrin (the rightful prince has been imprisoned in the form of a swan) or Parsifal (Klingsor there, is almost a textbook necromancer) – then at least some sort of supernatural force, of magic, of the casting of curses and their undoing, of the carrying of guilt and the means of its expiation, functions as not only a possibility, but provides the main motivations of the various developments and resolutions of the story. Complicating these forces, there is usually a further influence from orthodox religion, such as sin and forgiveness. Yet it is never clearly identified and frequently kept vague from any orthodox connections.

It is the rules governing the magic, the curses, the power struggles, that are gradually revealed only as Wagner's plots unfold, which the characters either obey, use, or circumvent. Whether religious or not, a crisis always forms around some expiation or sacrifice which fulfills or neutralizes the curse or impediment. Even in the Ring tetralogy, the gods themselves are caught in some larger fate that they cannot control, try as they might.

In The Flying Dutchman, the lovers do fully recognize one another, and make their redeeming pledge of mutual faithfulness, and it is only misunderstanding that haphazardly comes between them in the person of Senta's tedious suitor Eric, who persists in chasing her to the degree that the Dutchman mistakenly accuses her of the lethal infidelity. It is here that Wagner demonstrates his unique insights into real psychological subtlety. Up until now when the Dutchman has confronted the countless women who went on to betray him, or were unable to prove their commitment, he has cursed them, thus vindictively condemning them to eternal damnation.

But for the first time, with Senta, he is concerned that he has brought this upon her and wishes to absolve her, and leave her unscathed by his curse. This might – or must – be the very element that allows him to be redeemed himself. Instead of cursing Senta, he leaves in his ship. Still, she seeks to prove her eternal love by peremptorily killing herself to prove there can be no other love for her. The Christian orthodoxy of any of these events is of course untenable, what with the suicide and the curses, but Wagner sought to show the lovers, Senta and the Dutchman, united in a final heavenly theatrical vision, in which the ghost ship is also seen finally sinking to its rest in the depths. Their destiny has been fulfilled.

The Dutchman ultimately redeems himself by allowing Senta off the hook. It is a nicety that frequently goes by unnoticed.

Michael Doleschell keeps mostly to non-fiction, and is deeply devoted to music and culture and never tires of history, and is fascinated by science and the scientific method [as long as they are well explained]. He broadcasts a program of Classical Music for 3 hours every Saturday afternoon from noon till 3 on the U of G's Radio Station: CFRU.

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