Cher Public

A fjord in her future

Anja Silja staked a claim as a leading Senta of her era with a series of searing performances of Der Fliegende Holländer while in her early twenties, including a much-praised 1961 Bayreuth outing opposite Franz Crass conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch. Now, Andromeda is offering an intriguing side-by-side comparison with a performance from that run featuring an identical cast, save for George London in the title role.
 

While the sound is variable and London displays some early signs of vocal decline, it’s an emotionally involving show that never lags, despite the then-common practice of breaking up the action into three acts and going to intermission just after the rapturous Act 2 love duet. Sawallisch’s gripping, brisk approach juxtaposes Wagner’s vivid depictions of the sea, sailors and earthy townspeople with the fable’s supernatural elements and theme of redemptive love.

Silja’s imposing stage presence is evident even decades later, with edgy, almost reckless upward attacks suggesting a repressed, utterly possessed small town maiden. She tackles the almost two-octave span of the Act 2 ballad without breaking a sweat and saves enough at the end of the third act for a pyrotechnical “Hier steh’ ich, treu dir bis zum Tod!” before throwing herself into the sea.

The middle act encounter with London in her chamber is less spontaneous and not as dramatically convincing as on the recording with Crass, with the characters’ overlapping lines spilling out a bit haphazardly, as if they were politicians talking past each other. The final act’s confrontation with Erik, sung by Fritz Uhl, is cleaner and more focused, a study in frantic obsession worthy of a Gothic horror story that matches Silja’s other recorded accounts.

London is also a dramatic force, sounding almost too high strung grappling with his isolation and pain in the opening monologue, “Die Frist ist Um.”  Act 2’s “Wie aus der Ferne längst vergang’ner Zeiten” shows off more variety of tone and portamento, the yearning for salvation bursting through his character’s otherwordly mien.

Admirers of the bass-baritone’s early work will notice the familar mezza voce and a somewhat thinner tone in the louder passages. If the overall effect isn’t as nuanced as Crass’, it’s still a savvy, convincing performance that elicits a big response from the Bayreuth audience.

Uhl holds his own dramatically in such distinguished company, bringing an impulsive somewhat desperate quality to Erik, who as a hunter in a maritime village is himself something of an outsider. Josef Greindl injects some humanity into the proceedings as an earthy, even comedic Daland, complete with a noticeable wobble. Rounding out the principals are Georg Paskuda as the steersman and Res Fischer as Mary.

The remastered, 24-bit sound is variable, with a great deal of distortion at the raucous opening of the third act that’s exacerbated by foot stomping on stage. The stage-pit balance is adequate, and the depth and precision of the Bayreuth chorus comes through, especially as the tormented seafarer’s ghostly crew. London and other principals drop out in places, presumably due to the stage blocking.

Remastered sound quality is the main appeal of a Farao audio Blu-ray Die Walküre from the Bavarian State Opera with John Tomlinson, Waltraud Meier, Gabriele Schnaut and Peter Seiffert under the baton of Zubin Mehta.

The live 2002 performance is of the semi-finished production Herbert Wernicke conceived before he died and reveals the Munich orchestral forces to be in particularly fine shape. Mehta draws some lovely, balanced playing in a traditional Romantic interpretation that’s easy on the ears but fails to mine the music’s deeper meaning or distill the essence of critical moments such as Brünnhilde’s Act 3 capitulation to Wotan. The opening storm sequence is nevertheless quite thrilling, and leaves a listener feeling like an extra in the orchestra pit.

In the familiar role of Wotan, Tomlinson’s dark, distinctive voice still rings with power but starts to lose its edge after the scene with Fricka and shows wear in higher passages by the time the Farewell rolls around. Schnaut brings equal parts intensity and stridency to Brünnhilde, slicing through the orchestral textures with a keen sense of her character’s plight.

Seiffert is a pleasingly lyrical Siegmund, crafting an expressive “Winterstürme” but elsewhere sounding a bit stiff and lacking authority. Mihoko Fujimura is an indignant Fricka and Kurt Rydl a menacing, unsteady Hunding.

Meier’s dramatic outbursts and lyrical passages capture a repressed Sieglinde gradually stirring to love in the opening act. In Act 3, she soars over the rapturous accompaniment in “Oh hehrstes Wunder!”—that ecstatic and dramatically important outburst that introduces the leitmotif associated with redemption and reappears at the very end of Götterdämmerung.

It’s the most spontaneous moment in a release that’s too paint-by-the-numbers to rank anywhere near the top tier of recorded Walküres but may encourage audiophiles and gadget heads explore the limits of their sound systems.

  • Camille

    This is very interesting. These performances would be those in which La Silja sang die Ballade in the original key, a tone higher, I would assume? It sounds so much better I wish they all would sing it thus, (I’ll try to locate a youtube example).

    She does do very well by this opera since it was done when her voice was still very young and fresh and, aside from die Heilige Leonie, would be my favorite performer of this role, not to mention George London who was a giant in this role.

    Thanks very much, and will be considering this Holländer as I’ve such a fondness for this opera which I don’t seem to ever outgrow.

    • Camille

      a giant in His role of Der Holländer, that is to say. Sorry

    • luvtennis

      Camille:

      Have you EVER heard the Covent Garden performance with Flagstad (1937), it is absolutely stunning -- even more than the Tristan and Ring performances from that era -- it shows just how much we have lost in the intervening years, pace J. Meier, J. Wilson!!!!!!

      I love Birgit and believe that she had the most wonderful Elektra voice -- and while acknowledging the extraordinary qualities of her Wagner performances, don’t think that sort of voice and singing style are not what were intended for those roles.

      • Camille

        Luvtennis, sir—
        Well the answer is both yes and no.

        Thirty or more years ago I had a wonderful LP of Flagstad singing great bleeding hunks of her repertory and that Ballade from London was one of those chunks. It was remarkable in so many ways that I listened repeatedly, and very particularly for the sublime smoothness of the emission of the tone plus the correct way she took a diminuendo in the final strophe of the Ballade, which is rarely observed by others.

        Now, since I come from the Gothic Age of Opera Listening, I was grateful for just that small portion of her Senta and the thought has never occurred to me that the entire enchilada might be out there, so thanks for that.

        I have deliberated about over what and how to describe the category of voice Senta belongs to (it is listed variously by Kloiber with hochdramatisch being one of its categorizations(!), but I think you’ve got it by the balls when you say “Agathe on Steroids”! Perfekt! No slumming Brünnies for me, least of all Varnay, although I love her a lot, in other things.

        In somma: thanks for your thoughts! Much obliged.

    • Lohenfal

      Camille, I have the 1961 Bayreuth recording with Silja and Crass, and indeed she sings the Ballade in the original A Minor. As the booklet notes (remember when those existed?) indicate, Wagner transposed it to G Minor for Mme. Schröder-Devrient for the 1843 premiere, since she found the original key too difficult. It does sound better when higher, but not many sopranos want that additional challenge. Sawallisch also returns to other elements in the 1843 performances, such as the original ending of the Overture and the ending of the final act.

      • Camille

        Thank you for your kind confirmation.

        As the real problem is keeping the entire section in the corresponding major/minor tonalities, I wish sopranos would get off their respective dumm bums and learn it in the higher key. It keeps the whole Spinning Scene together whereas that KerPLUNK down to G minor is always distracting. As even Jane Eaglen recorded it in the higher key (or I seem to recall it as such) and there is the Schott score available, I wish it were done more often. And especially as there is all sort of to and fro regarding the three act version versus the straight through version and whether or not that pretty coda should be tacked on at the end, etc. usw. Blabber.

        Yes, I not only remember CD booklets but the FABulous LP thingeys, some of which I treasured and kept for years before, inevitably, they were lost in the flood of time….

    • Camille

      Here is La Silja, singing first in the original A minor:

      Now in G minor, which is the established norm:

      Haven’t really checked but the G minor is later on and probably not as good so I am cheating a little to make my point!

      Mme Silja, whom I only heard once, was all about the stage, which she dominated like a giantess. A little sorry I didn’t go see her as Kostelnicka in Carnegie Hall some years ago. I heard it later on via radio and it sounded pretty bad but pretty sure it would have been something other than that if I’d viewed it as well.

      A truly stupefying repertory of roles had she, virtually the proverbial kitchen sink, as few others have ever dared!

  • PCally

    I wish someone had filmed Silja in her soprano prime, she must have been something to see. I’ve never been able to get around how unsteady her singing was from the very beginning. She always seemed more suited to character roles to me. Also, I love Hollander and cannot believe I was unaware that the ballad is usually sung in a different key. Leonie will always be number one, thought I’m wondering if anyone has any recollections of Gwyneth Jones in the role? (I’m also quite partial to Studer’s recording, though I hear her live performances were quite weak).

    I haven’t heard the Walkure in a while because, Meier aside, I don’t really remember enjoying it all that much. I love her Sieglinde so I’m tempted to go back and give it a listen.

    • Quanto Painy Fakor

      Silja was always a real stage animal. Even in the 1970’s her physique was like this Bayreuth video and her red hair blazing. You can hear from her speaking voice the characteristics of her dialect that remain in her elocution while singing. Even if you don’t speak German you can learn much more about her in the Da Capo interview.

      • Quanto Painy Fakor

        In a way she was quite a tom-boy.

      • Operngasse

        “Stage animal” is an often-used phrase to describe a performer who truly inhabits the character, bringing him or her to life in a way that many other performers fail to do. I completely agree with your use of this phrase to describe Anja Silja.

        I had the good fortune to see her as Kostelnicka in late 1980 (?) in San Francisco. I went twice, the second time just to experience her performance again. She was breathtaking, creating a characterization that was horrific and dominating. Truly glad I was able to add it to my opera memories.

    • Gualtier M

      You want Gwyneth Jones as Senta? Okay will do for the BBC in 1973 in good clean English as the Vicar would say:

  • Cocky Kurwenal

    Do you know the Bayreuth recording with Dame Gwyneth, Pcally? I don’t know if she was just having a bad week or what, but she’s not very comfortable with it. She’s in full on, 100% released Wagnerian form, but not able to sustain the punishing tessitura or unsympathetic ascents to the top. Mind you, the great Pieczonka struggled with a lot of the same phrases in London last year and I think of her as a top notch technician -- I think Senta is one of those very particular roles that calls for a certain special type of facility.

    • PCally

      Senta really is a killer. It’s only slightly less heft than Isolde and Brunnhilde and the tessitura is even higher. I cannot thing of anyone who hasn’t compromised in some way when singing the role. I tend to prefer the “big lyric” approach then full dramatic.
      Cocky, I believe that in the early 1970’s Jones had her first big vocal crisis brought on by overwork and, according to her, an accident that damaged her spine (I really can’t remember exactly). I believe she also gave birth around that time. Most of her operatic recording coincide with this period when she was working to get herself back on track. Some people insist that there is no unsteadiness of any kind on her recordings of Salome, Kundry, and Senta, but while I find things to enjoy, I think that one can only get a small fraction of her impact by recordings. If I was in the audience for that Senta, I imagine I would have totally been won over. I wish that when they filmed the Kupfer Hollander they’d waited until the year she joined the run (though it’s hard Lisbeth Balslev, who is excellent).

      • luvtennis

        Hmmm. I think one of the problems with modern performances of Senta is that come to from the wrong way. Think Agathe on steroids -- NOT Brunnhilde slumming it. It’s hard sing if you approach it with the intent of being loud. Listen to Flagstad’s live performances -- or even Teschemacher who are superb because they are constantly approaching the role as lyric soprano NOT a dramatic.

        • luvtennis

          they approach the role from the wrong direction -- no more Martinis before posting!

          • PCally

            luvtennis, I’m absolutely the worst when it comes to typos and I’m stone sober. I just type WAY to fast and often fail to proofread (idiotic of me). Flagstad will always be the standard for me and I love her senta but I personally prefer her Isolde and Brunnhilde because I think those roles are temperamentally better suited to her. I’ve seen Pieczonka in the role and thought she was pretty stellar. Her high notes aren’t glorious but they are rock solid and she never pushes. Her voice is predominately of a more lyric bend and I think that’s what I prefer in the role.

            • Bill

              Rysanek was, for me, the greatest of Sentas
              and she was, in part, responsible for bringing Fliegender Hollaender back as a regular repertory opera (at the Met for example).
              Silja was also effective on stage but
              had to push her voice a bit more and it could be squally as Senta. I saw
              Silja in a number of her operas and even in all
              3 roles in Tales of Hoffman in Frankfurt.
              her Antonia was acted in such a way that
              one was practically in tears -- and of course
              in the last several decades Silja’s presence in almost any role carries great effectiveness -- one just has to watch her
              no matter what the quality of the voice.
              As to Senta, as mentioned last week,
              Dvorakova was quite sensational (in Vienna)
              in her prime -- perhaps one of the greatest
              vocally I heard was Benackova -- there was absolutely no problem with the notes and
              she sang with gorgeous tone throughout --
              Benackova was not as commanding on the stage
              as Rysanek or Silja or a few others (Varnay
              most likely) but all of Benackova’s high notes were right on and beautiful to hear and her middle tones were luminous.
              I did not like Johanna Meier at all (at the
              Met but it was one of Ponnelles most
              unsuccessful productions),and Voigt was dull. The end of the second act with Rysanek and London at the old Met had all of us gasping in disbelief that opera could be so good. Almost as fine Dvorakova and Hotter in Vienna. I imagine Grob-Prandl was quite exciting. And I am sure, PCally, that Flagstad was truly wonderful in he 1930s. I do not know if Flagstad sang Senta after the war and in her late years the highest notes might have been a stretch for her. Nilsson was good also as Senta -- perhaps a bit steely but strong on top. Many of the other Sentas I have heard were overparted, alas -- Senta is a tough role.
              I liked Jones as Senta but she was not always in the best of voices though I do not think
              I ever heard Jones wobble on the highest notes. When in radiant voice with the Wobble under control, Jones could be absolutely thrilling. Once or twice Jones was quite unsteady in the ballad and then
              redeemed herself as the opera went along.

            • PCally

              Bill, I had no idea that Benackova sang Senta. I’m not a fan of her in general but the timbre of her voice is what my ideal Senta would sound like. Flagstad didn’t sing Senta after the war but she sang the ballad in concert. I’m also partial to Varnay even if she sounds like, as Luvtennis would put, Brunnhilde slumming. Her way with a Wagnerian phrase is superlative.
              Had I been attending performances in the 1960’s and 1970’s I have a feeling that Jones would have been won of my favorite performers. Along with Salome and Kundry, Senta is the role I’m most intrigued by in terms of what Jones’ impact was like live.
              Also Bill, I’m fascinated by your account of Jones as Ariadne. I would never have pictured her in that role but I at her best she was radiant.

            • Hippolyte

              I’ll put in a vote for Julia Varady as Senta, a role that suited her considerable gifts admirably. I’m forever disappointed that she canceled the run of Dutchman she had signed for at the Met in the 90s.

              Crespin sang a few Sentas at the Met in the 60s--I used to have a recording of one of them which seems to have disappeared. I remember her being quite interesting although a bit hard-pressed at the top by then — 1968.

              I had no idea until recently that Jon Vickers had sung a few Eriks at the Met--the ones in NYC with Valkki and Kouba but there was one on tour in Minneapolis (!) with Rysanek and London!

            • Bill

              PCally -- I saw Jones as Ariadne several
              times in Vienna. The one time, late
              in Janowitz career, Janowitz cancelled and Jones replaced her. I was a little annoyed
              but when Jones began to sing in the Opera
              itself it was clear from the onset she was
              in most glorious voice -- not a trace of a wobble at all -- and Ariadne demands alot of
              vocal nuance. As the evening ensued everyone
              perked up and I am sure that Jones herself
              knew that she was in superlative voice, in
              total control of every soft note, completely on pitch. At the end of the evening the
              ovations for Jones (I had seen her debut
              in Vienna in Feb 1966 replacing Nilsson as
              Fidelio -- no rehearsal and King was replaced by Dermota also) were enormous, and prolonged
              with many solo curtain calls and such.
              Jones looked so happy -- radiant actually
              during the curtain calls and we all knew
              precisely how magnificent Jones could be
              when in good voice. I saw Jones quite often
              in Vienna, in Koeln, in DC with the Vienna
              Opera, and at the Met and perhaps this Ariadne was one of the best performances from her I ever could imagine … and this is not
              to forget her superb Dyers’ Wife or Fidelio or Aegyptische Helene etc. I also saw her complete Ring at the Met, I guess her only one there. I have to say though that there were some evenings when she just was not spot on and had some trouble controlling her voice
              and other evenings when she would start totally off and then eventually triumph as the evening progressed. In any case, an
              invaluable artist at a time when truly dramatic sopranos were more difficult to
              find. She is an honorary member of the
              Vienna Opera House -- an honor not bestowed
              upon many singers.

            • luvtennis

              I actually hadn’t had any Martinis…. Just multi-tasking!

        • mjmacmtenor

          Here is a lyric approach from someone who had no problems with the higher notes in her prime

        • Milady DeWinter

          I agree luvtennis -- I like your image of “Agathe on steroids”; after all, “Dutchman” is very much, in Wagnerian terms, an old fashioned aria and cabaletta opera (take that statement very liberally).
          I haven’t seen Fliegende in the theater often, but once with a very impressive Gessendorf, and another time, with, of all people, Phyllis Curtain, singing in a smaller Boston venue, but she was just luminous. Alas, never got to hear the great Leonie do it “live”.

      • mjmacmtenor

        One of the first times I saw GJ was in the filmed version of Dutchman in English

  • Krunoslav

    NOT a stage animal, one gathers, but what a relief that someone could actually get around the music this handily!

    • PCally

      But did she ever sing the complete role? The ballad is hardly the most difficult part of the role.

      • Krunoslav

        doubt it- not that many theaters she starred in did it during rethnerg’s likely years to sing it.

        at the met it was clearly jeritza’s ‘property’ 1930-32, only one show went to gertrude kappel; then they had just (sic) flagstad 1937-40

        san fran didn’t do it until 1954

        it was interesting to learn that Rethberg sang exactly 2 performances ever at the wiener staatsoper -- a 1922 AIDA with Marie Olszewska and a 1937 LOHENGRIN with Anny Konetzni .

        well, callas only sang three Lucias there, jessye two ariadnes, steber one tosca, sills one queen of the night. caruso and tucker- three shows apiece. every major theater has such cases.

        despite the ballad’s supposed non-difficulty, neither leonie nor silja nor jones, its great recent exponents, are not as accurate as rethberg’s, so i thought it worth posting.

        • Bill

          Krunoslav -- as you know back in the 1930s most of the major opera singers were bound to the ensemble of one opera house with yearly contracts.
          To sing at another opera house, they had to get
          permission from their main opera house and then
          appear elsewhere “als Gast” -- During
          Rethberg’s time the Wiener Staatsoper had a stacked ensemble of talented sopranos who sang the same roles or some of the same roles as Rethberg. Earlier on Rethberg was contracted to
          the Dresden Opera and then at the Met from 1922-42. Seinemeyer also sang very infrequently in Vienna as did Lemnitz and others. Conversely
          Jeritza was almost entirely in Vienna and then
          later for a few months each season at the Met.

          Callas was supposed to sing the new Traviata
          in Vienna with Karajan but there was a dispute
          of some sort and Zeani took over. Plus much
          of Callas’ repertoire was not being done in
          Vienna at the time.

          Most of Steber’s and Sills’ careers were in the USA as was Tucker’s and others. Sills actually is not very well known in Europe. In the old days singers were more apt to stay put and sing
          a large repertoire in only one or two opera houses and of course much of what was done in
          Covent Garden was in English, in La Scala in
          Italian, Vienna and Germany in the German language. Basically only the Met it seems, except during its 7 German seasons early on, put
          most of its productions on in the original language of the opera. Vienna changed to original language mostly from 1957 and when I was in Munich in 1965 almost everything was still in German. When Covent Garden engaged Welitsch,
          Seefried, Hotter, Schwarzkopf after 1947 they, at first, had to re-learn and sing their roles in English. There were also still claques in many opera houses before WWII and any new singer appearing outside their usual domain had to contend with the disfavor of the claques if not
          actively pursuing them. Even when Callas made her Met debut as Norma (I was there) a large number of Milanov fans were out in force with their “Viva Zinka” buttons and would not applaud Callas whatever she did, though the same Milanov fans were screaming for Barbieri and del
          Monaco on purpose just to make Callas seem less
          attractive to the audience (and in any event
          Callas was not at her best voice in that performance and was almost overshadowed by her coevals on stage. I am sure Rethberg would have
          had success most anywhere during her prime.

          Rethberg’s Senta is quite beautifully sung.
          Leonie, Silja and Jones were often not entirely
          accurate vocally -- they appealed for many other reasons but when in good voice, each was thrilling and each made certain roles their own.
          for whatever reason).

          • Camille

            Lieber Bill—
            Do you know where I could obtain a couple of “Viva Zinka” buttons as I’d like to have earrings made of them.

            How is that book of yours coming along—”An Operaphile’s Fila of Great Performances” might be a suggested title?

            Love—CacaCamille

        • Camille

          You are correct. Mme Rethberg has more of a line to her singing and doesn’t churn the waters as they mostly do.

          By happenstance, and by way of investigating a bit about Respighi’s opera, La Campana sommersa, I was reading anout her career as the Met, just a few days ago. Quite something, she should not only begin but end--twenty years later--her career at the Met as Aïda. No wonder Rosa Ponselle gave the role up.

          There is also this page devoted to her:

          http://www.cantabile-subito.de/Sopranos/Rethberg__Elisabeth/hauptteil_rethberg__elisabeth.html

          • Flora del Rio Grande

            Two options: E Bay and (s he still around?) Bruce Burroughs.
            Come to think of it, Charlie might have a spare pair.
            love
            Flord del Rio Grande

        • Is there an archive for the Vienna Staatsoper?

          • Bill

            yes -- but it is not entirely up to date for
            all of their operas performed online.
            There are also two books (or maybe three),
            one from the origins from the original opening and one from the first performance after WWII
            It lists all the operas and the number of each
            performances each production has had with the
            conductors and singers. Then there is an
            artist register with every singer, conductor
            and stage or scenic director and the number of
            performances of each role the singer sang
            and the firs and last performance date of the role -- this is actually more complete than the
            online listings which are still being worked on.

            For example at the turn of the century it was
            not the custom to list the conductors in advance of the performance -- the audience would find
            out who was conducting when Mahler (or another
            conductor) came into the pit at the commencement of the performance. I am not so sure
            why all the operas and casts are not completely listed in their online archive listing.

            You can look up and see how often a singer
            sang a role and you can put two singers
            in and see how often they sang together but
            some operas such as Don Giovanni has a lot of
            gaps online. Maybe they are trying hard to
            be 100 percent accurate. With the ensemble
            system the casts changed frequently from performance to performance.
            in their on

          • siegmund
          • Thank you both.

            Bill: I think you’re right about the incompleteness.

            To test it out, I did a quick search on Jessye and only two performance (as Ariadne) showed up. I’m sure she did more than that in Vienna. The general director there was the same one who had initially hired her in Berlin and I was under the impression (based on her disappointing book) that she had sung a few times there. But I could be mis-remembering. For example, I thought that Vienna is where she sang her only live Elsas. But I could be wrong.

            • siegmund

              It is not complete, Jeritza sang Brunnhilde in Die walkure in Vienna but it’s not listed in the archive but there are live examples of her in the role on youtube. The wide range of repertoire some sangers had just amazes me. Just check out Marie Gutheil-Schoder repertoire, she sang Elektra, Blondchen and Adele in 1915.

    • armerjacquino

      Man, that is good singing.

  • Freniac

    It might not be a portrayal that translates well to a giant house like the Met, but I thought Catherine Nagelstad’s Senta, which she sang here in Amsterdam in 2010, was just about ideal. Definitely approached from the (full) lyric, bel canto side of things. Admirable phrasing, very musical, and very subtly acted. The duet with the Holländer especially was hauntingly beautiful and very moving. The production might not be to everyone’s taste, but in the video you can get a good sense of Nagelstad’s take on the role.

  • chicagoing

    I was wandering the Ravinia grounds before entering the Martin Theatre for Karita Mattila’s recital last evening and had the opportunity to take in part of a piano rehearsal for this Saturday’s Flying Dutchman. Amber Wagner and the other principals were sitting on stage of the empty pavillion which made for a nice moment. Greer Grimsley was the primary voice I heard. In the audicence for Ms. Mattila was Matthew Plenk who will sing the Steersman in that concert. He seemed to be jotting down notes during the second half. It was so charming to see someone with pen in hand and not a phone.