Love him or hate him, Richard Wagner has a reputation as the composer of immense, four-hour-plus dramas rooted in confusing stories and drawn from obscure mythology.
For legions of Wagner enthusiasts, that makes no difference. Countless music lovers have found themselves drawn — raptly — into the vast musical worlds Wagner created, and eager to return time after time. But there are others who find his sprawling, dramatic canvases — the ones he called "music dramas" rather than operas — to be abstruse, forbidding or simply too long to bear.
Yet Wagner wasn't always the composer his reputation now suggests. His earliest works are more traditionally operatic, and their musical style doesn't quite seem fully his own. But by his fifth opera, The Flying Dutchman, Wagner had hit his stride. Its powerful music clearly anticipates the groundbreaking dramas yet to come, yet it serves a simple and compelling tale that's brimming with action, and passion, from top to bottom. And its two-hour story seems to fly by, even in the original, one-act version.
Wherever you look, in the history and literature of just about any culture, you can find a shadowy character generically described as "the wanderer." On film, we find examples among Hollywood Westerns. Think of all those Clint Eastwood movies where he plays an unknown horseman who rides into town, metes out justice, wins a heart or two and then leaves as mysteriously as he came.
The title character in Wagner's The Flying Dutchman is simply a more venerable version of that same, legendary wanderer.
The Dutchman's story dates back centuries. He's the ship's captain who tempts fate and is cursed, doomed to wander stormy seas forever. By now, this character's tragic legend, and his evocative name, are pervasive enough to have made it into some unexpected places. Not long ago, the Dutchman found himself mixed up with the unlikeliest of modern heroes — in a video game called "Spongebob Squarepants: The Revenge of the Flying Dutchman!"
Still, of all the Dutchman's varying incarnations, it's hard to think of one that's more vivid, dramatic and compelling than the one in Wagner's opera.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a production of The Flying Dutchman from the Washington National Opera, featuring standout performances by baritone Alan Held in the title role and soprano Jennifer Wilson as Senta, the woman who finally breaks the Dutchman's curse.