The Dutchman De-Spooked

Photo by Robert Millard

To the accusers of deprivation in the ranks of ardent Wagnerians, the Los Angeles Opera throws a small bone now and then, the current offering being The Flying Dutchman, which runs through April 12. The shortest and goofiest score in the Wagner canon, its hints of later mastery mingled with a leaning toward cute folksiness that the composer would soon outgrow, the Dutchman soars onto the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage with a comparable blend: an adequate, if not thrilling, musical performance mingled with some stage business that sometimes enhances the action and sometimes doesn’t.

Julie Taymor’s production was first visited upon local audiences in September 1995, her first American operatic staging after her European Magic Flute and Salome and her Emmy-winning Kabuki-style re-creation of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. The term “Eurotrash” had barely infiltrated the American critical vocabulary, and the nonsense Taymor inflicted upon Wagner’s first important opera – a whole ‘nother level at least as complex as Wagner’s own scenario – was looked upon as the work of individual kookiness. An old man chased a mobile park bench during the overture; headless dress dummies danced during the “Spinning Chorus”; a small child played with dolls and ship models to mirror the action. One good curse – Satan’s anathema against the Dutchman himself – seems to elicit another, and Taymor’s atrocity was merely the latest burden visited upon this opera soon after Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s infamous and much-booed San Francisco version. In that one, the entire action took place during a dream by the Steersman, the opera’s most dispensable character.

The current revival, “bone” though it be, has at least been stripped of most of the aforementioned gristle, and this is all the more surprising, since the director entrusted with this restaging, Vera Calábria, had also been Ponnelle’s assistant. As of the day before the performance, Calábria told me, she had not yet even met Julie Taymor – who was actually in town to stage something at the Oscars. The musical performance is not exactly deluxe, but the staging is now clean and sensible, and there is plenty of time to marvel at the one surviving masterpiece, George Tsypin’s breakaway, mobile, skeletal structure that serves both as ship and as seafarer’s cottage. His design does, however, necessitate an intermission to accomplish a set change, violating Wagner’s preference for a nonstop performance. (On opening night, the production did take on a Marxist – as in Groucho – overtone, as a small flap in the scenery got stuck, and resisted the efforts of crawling, highly visible stagehands to loosen it.)

Bernd Weikl has been the Wagnerian lyric baritone of choice for rather a while, and, alas, this has begun to show; his Dutchman was a creature of only sporadic eloquence. Matti Salminen, the Daland, has been around for almost as long, but that resonant, hearty basso of his remains firmly anchored. The Senta, a Russian soprano named Mlada Khoudoley, sang both sweetly and loud; she managed some beautiful tones during the agonizingly long “Senta’s Ballad” but seemed to tire toward the end. The German-Polish conductor, Klaus Weise, seemed, on the other hand, to tire from the beginning.

On the one hand, the classical compact-disc industry beats a wholesale retreat from interesting repertory – new music, new performance concepts, new discoveries of ancient treasures. On the other, there is the inscrutable project known as Andante. An offshoot and namesake of the online music magazine, it zooms forward prestissimo con moto with a growing catalog of ancient and honorable bygone performances chosen with taste but also with the old-fashioned collectors’ mania that I thought had vanished with the demise of the 78-rpm shellac – but which glows again in Tim Page’s knowledgeable, passionate program essays with each volume. The Andante collection now stands at 29 multidisc volumes; four new issues are at hand, released next Tuesday. (You can order from, and a few stores carry them. The per-disc price, by the way, has just come down a tad.)

Andante offers a set of the last three Bruckner symphonies, in performances by Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan and Wilhelm Furtwängler taken off Austrian radio broadcasts. All three symphonies are available in dozens upon dozens of competing performances, including studio recordings by the same three conductors; apparently there are collectors who must add yet another Furtwängler Bruckner Eighth to those already listed in Schwann, or Stravinsky conducting the Symphony of Psalms in a wheezy recording barely into electrical technology, to stand in humble proximity alongside the infinitely more audible later version.

Yet there are treasures beyond measure. Four discs of broadcast performances by Eduard van Beinum and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, dating from 1940 to 1958 and therefore in mono, suggest what Los Angeles lost in the way of masterful, self-effacing music making when this conductor died after only two years here. The wisdom here is overpowering: wonderful, clear-tinted Debussy, a Beethoven Third Piano Concerto with the single-named Solomon, a Bach concerto with the visionary pianist Dinu Lipatti, Mozart with Yehudi Menuhin before he became just another fiddler.

The best of these new sets is the most curious: three discs devoted to just two of Beethoven’s 10 violin sonatas in multiple performances, recorded between 1936 and 1950, and amazing in the breadth of differences from one to another. Here, for example, are four versions of the tumultuous “Kreutzer” Sonata: the sweet-toned sentiment of Fritz Kreisler, with Franz Rupp’s piano sounding as if it’s in the next room; the scholarly detachment of Germany’s Georg Kulenkampff, with the noble Wilhelm Kempff at the piano; the driving force of Adolf Busch’s violin, give or take a few squeezed notes, with the exuberant Rudolf Serkin keeping abreast. Then there is one more performance, Joseph Szigeti performing at the Library of Congress in 1940 with Bela Bartók at the piano, digging into the music at white heat, uncovering hitherto unknown suggestions that Beethoven may have had Gypsy blood, and transforming music we thought we knew pretty well into a newly minted thing of flame and cataclysm.

The other sonata is the blithe, ingratiating F major, sometimes known as the “Spring,” and the performance of choice is sublime: Szymon Goldberg and Lili Kraus, recorded in 1936 in an outpouring of affectionate musical togetherness that could well stand as the full definition of chamber music. They don’t play like that anymore, and it’s great that Andante-
dot-com is around to remind us of when they did.

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