Pierre-Louis Dietsch: Le Vaisseau Fantome ou Le Maudit des Mers (1842)

Opera in Two Acts (three tableaux). Running Time 1 hour 45 minutes.

This is what the Paris Opera made of Richard Wagner’s original scenario for the Flying Dutchman. It premiered about two months before Wagner’s opera. This opera has been released (2013) in a 4-disc dual recording with the original version of Wagner’s Dutchman. It is also shorter than Dutchman. I am not sure if any of the music in online. The featured image is of Magnus’ act 1 costume design from the 1842 premiere production (thanks to wikimedia!).

PLOT: Scotland, sometime in the 18th or early 19th centuries. Minna, daughter of the wealthy merchant Barlow, is engaged to Magnus but after her father is saved by the mysterious captain Troil her hand is given by her father to this captain. Magnus is ordained a priest and is set to perform Minna’s wedding ceremony to Troil when he realizes from a wound on Troil’s hand that he is his father’s murderer leading to Minna’s suicide ala Senta.

ACT 1: 70 minutes

0: The overture ** (nine and a half minutes long) can be divided into two profoundly different but very entertaining halves (albeit of unequal length). The first five and a half minutes are on a slowly growing dramatic theme which crescendos around three minutes in and then we have a rather happy jovial party-like tune leading to a grand conclusion.

Scene 1: A room in the house of Barlow on the isle of Shetland known as Thule.

10: The orchestral bit before the opening chorus almost sounds like Gilbert and Sullivan but it tunes out to be much better **. Eric, not the boyfriend this time, asks Minna (not Senta) to sing the Ballade of the Phantom Ship. The chorus goes wild.

15: The Ballade **, or at least two verses of it, gets more spooky as time goes on but it certainly makes a great attempt at matching Wagner’s intensity in orchestration while also remaining joyously a la francaise.

18: Magnus, Minna’s finace, arrives and finishes Minna’s ballade with a third verse **. This is much more lyrical whereas the Minna’s song was much more dramatic, although the chorus refuses to let up on the good dramatics. Magnus then gives us some plotting by connecting the Phantom captain with the murder of his father (which horrifies Minna) and a wound on the captain’s hand that will never heal.

21: Minna has a nice little bit here *, or rather the orchestra has a nice bit of harmony.

22: Magnus gets rebuked by Minna, why does he stay up with her to the wee hours? Magnus’ response is honey sweet **.

25: It has some nice high bits here and in duet *** with Minna. He apologizes for having been away for three months. They return to old times, their childhood etc. He then leaves.

33: After some effectively stormy orchestral music, Minna has another aria ***. She remarks on the storm, how Troil lives in a storm of purgatory on his ship and for her to deliver him from his torment. Suddenly there is a harp accompaniment and a somewhat reprehensible violin has this was about to start sounding like Parsifal. She prays to God that she might be the cause of Troil’s redemption.

36: Eric returns to announce that Minna’s father is returning. Her jovial coloratura cabaletta * ends the scene. It feels longer than it actually is, but it is okay.

Scene 2: A market square in front of the house, tables set up for a fest.

41: The chorus greets us again * with the news that Minna is to marry her father’s rescuer, Troil (still we do not see him and Barlow thinks he is a Swede named “Waldemar”)

45: Barlow relates the turn of events in another ballad ** in which he admits that he doesn’t care if Satan were his son-in-law if he were rich.

47: The Swedish sailor’s chorus get Eric to try their wine. It is very, very strange wine. Eric challenges the Swedes to a song contest **. The Shetlanders’ are jolty, the Swedes are absolutely bombastic.

51: Troil comes on, demanding silent from his men ** and orders them back on the ship.

52: The Minna-Troil duet ** is not quite the Senta-Dutchman duet but it follows a similar pattern. Up to this point throughout the scene she has rejected her father’s wedding plans and at first she tries to flee from Troil as well but his words eventually win her over. Listen for the last two minutes which includes a tune that vaguely sounds like Wagner’s music at this point in the story.

63, 66, 68: Barlow tells Magnus to get lost, or rather that he isn’t marrying Minna who consents to Troil and Magnus gives her up. There is a sad ensemble here * the tune of which is brooding until hit becomes this almost ascending thing **, Minna above everything, then harp. The last two minutes consists of a rather amazing little allegro passage *** as the act comes to a glorious close.

ACT 2: The monastery on the tip of the island. 36 minutes

0: Entr’acte *, starts off all happy then bang, bang, more dramatic, but not yet tragic, some flute and oboe bits over the strings. The end is espeically effective, although a little derivative.

3: A chorus of monks **. It is very grave.

6: Troil song of fear **, he thinks that Minna will curse God because of him. He thinks that they will be damned together for all eternity. He goes.

14: Minna comes on to prayer. Magnus arrives and she does not pray. Magnus reveals that God has told me to become a priest and marry her to Troil, but also how he knows how his father died, as revealed to Magnus by his father to spooky music **. Minna has difficulty believing that Magnus would marry her to Troil, especially seeing that he (Magnus) was once her fiance.

17: Magnus admits to having gone off her to an oddly bouncy bit of music *, but he wants her to be happy and blesses her.

21: Troil returns and when left alone with Minna calls off the wedding himself! Their duet ** takes about two minutes to build up but then she calls him out and declares that he doesn’t love her and he despairs. She becomes excited about the idea of martyrdom after he reveals that God will never give him peace, not even the grave. It gets progressively better as Troil’s fears vanish and the wedding is put back on.

29: Wedding music of a sort before Magnus has Minna and Troil exchange vows, but when vows are exchanged and Troil has to take off his glove Magnus sees that he has a bad wound and freaks out. Troil, who until this point even including Minna thought was Waldemar is the murderer of Magnus’ father! Magnus goes ballistic and curses Troil to be damned forever, the wedding party (Minna excluded) joins in on this bit of excited cursing **.

33: Troil orders his men to set sail, Minna stops him and declares that in order to save him she will gladly give her life. She runs to the cliff and jumps to her death, the apotheosis is sublimely lite **.

This is a very charming opera. It is also very French, and the homage to Meyerbeer and Halevy is blatant to say the least. It does in its own very French way what Wagner did in a very German way, and what is wrong with that. If there is anything wrong with this opera, and that is an IF, it would be in the plotting rather than the music, which is almost invariably good and some of it excellent. The existence of two tenor roles that are so similar to each other in act 1 (Magnus and the quickly disappeared Eric) seems slightly odd. Barlow is a little too fond of passing off his daughter to Troil for cash, and why exactly other than for the sake of the wedding scene or because he thinks his life after Minna is over does Magnus decide to take up holy orders in act two? The opera is very scenic and to some extent betrays stronger commonalities with Dutchman than just in terms of its story. Some of the music, the overture, the duets between Minna and Troil, almost sound like early Wagner, although, ironically, the notoriously well known similarities to Wagner’s opera are probably superficial. Erik is not Magnus (who seems preoccupied with ghosts, prophecy, and religion in general), the Dutchman never killed anyone, and Minna is not as suicidal (her motives are grounded in a very Catholic mode of martyrdom) than Senta. The strongest similarities are the choral contest (which doesn’t come off in the same way nor serves the same plot point) and the cliff jump at the end. Unfortunately this opera all but disappeared after its initial 1842 production (12 performances) and has barely been hear of since (Berlioz reportedly found it ‘sombre’ for some reason known only to himself. This is a great shame because there is much good music here. It is derivative to a great extent, but for an opera one timer, Dietsch provided the listener with a good evening of music. Oh well, at least Minkowski gave it an airing and a studio release in 2013! A-.










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