Cavalli and Wagner in Dortmund

My immediate reason for going to Dortmund in 2011 was that I really wanted to see Katharina Thoma’s highly praised new staging of the opera L’Eliogabalo by the early Baroque Italian composer Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676).

It turned out they were doing Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman the night before, so I bought a ticket for that one as well.

Since I had booked the whole trip at short notice and hadn’t even looked at the cast lists, it came as a complete surprise when I got to the Dortmund Opera and discovered that three old acquaintances were singing in these operas. Andreas Macco sang the title role in The Flying Dutchman the first night. Elzbieta Ardam and Tamara Weimerich were both in L’Eliogabalo the second night.

All three of them have often sung at the Frankfurt Opera and all three have come as featured guests to my opera appreciation courses at one time or another, as has the stage director Katharina Thoma.

Program booklet for L’Eliogabalo

Francesco Cavalli was a second-generation opera composer — his teacher was opera pioneer Claudio Monteverdi. Of Cavalli’s forty (or so) operas I have only seen two so far: his Giasone was performed at the Bockenheimer Depot in Frankfurt in 2007, and now L’Eliogabalo in Dortmund. (I have trouble remembering how L’Eliogabalo is pronounced, so I usually just say The Elbow Man.)

These are long operas, by our hectic 21st century standards, so they do need a few cuts and some imaginative stage direction to make them come alive today. What I remember most vividly about Katharina Thoma’s staging of L’Eliogabalo was her use of a revolving door to get the characters on or off the stage or to confront them with each other at appropriate moments.

Watch the trailer of L’Eliogabalo at the Dortmund Opera.

Cast of The Flying Dutchman in Dortmund

The Flying Dutchman (Der fliegende Holländer) by Richard Wagner (1813-1883) is about a ship’s captain who has to sail the seas for all eternity until he is redeemed, if ever, by the fidelity of a loving woman. This was Wagner’s fourth opera, but he later disowned the first three so this is the earliest one that is commonly performed.

I have seen The Flying Dutchman numerous times in Frankfurt am Main, Mainz, Wiesbaden and Augsburg, and now in Dortmund.

Program booklet for The Flying Dutchman

It is a deadly serious opera (Wagner was always deadly serious even when he was trying to be funny) but as I have explained in my post on the Opera in Augsburg it was based on a short, funny passage in a novel by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856). In Heine’s version a destitute young Polish aristocrat called Schabelewopski goes to the theater in Amsterdam to see a play called The Flying Dutchman, but he only sees part of it because he meets a lovely blonde blue-eyed Dutch girl who starts flirting with him by dropping orange peels on his head from the upper balcony. In the intermission he finds her and whispers: “Maiden! I want to kiss you on the mouth.” To which she whispers back: “By God, my dear Sir, that is a good idea.” So when everyone else goes back in to see the rest of the play, Schabelewopski and the Dutch girl stay behind and kiss wildly on a black sofa in the lobby. Plus other things that he only hints at through a long —–.

When he finally goes back to his seat the play is nearly over and the wife of the Flying Dutchman, whom Schabelewopski comically refers to as “Mrs. Flying Dutchwoman” (Frau fliegende Holländerin), proves her fidelity and redeems the Flying Dutchman by throwing herself into the sea and drowning herself.

The moral of the story, according to Schabelewopski, is that women should take care not to marry any Flying Dutchmen, but the author Heinrich Heine must have been astounded when Richard Wagner contacted him in Paris and asked if he could use the story for an opera. (We have to take Wagner’s word for it that he asked, because Heine never mentioned it.)

Of course Wagner left out the part about Schabelewopski and the Dutch girl on the black sofa. Still, I can recommend The Flying Dutchman as one of Wagner’s shortest and most accessible operas.

Wagner as a young man was a big fan of Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835), the Italian composer of Norma, La sonnambula and I puritani, among other brilliant bel canto operas. In Wagner’s Flying Dutchman the influence of Bellini is still evident, which I personally find a very positive thing (several duets and lots of flowing Italian-style melodies), but in later years Wagner tried to eliminate the Italian influence from his music and make it sound what he considered to be 100 % German.

Watch the trailer of The Flying Dutchman at the Dortmund Opera.

Looking up from the lobby of the Dortmund Opera

Like many other German cities, Dortmund built its first opera house at the beginning of the twentieth century. The original Dortmund Opera opened in 1904 and was destroyed by aerial bombing during the Second World War.

An architects’ competition to design a new opera house was held in 1955. The new building was constructed from 1956 to 1959 but it was not opened until 1966. (Perhaps someone from Dortmund can tell me why there was such a long delay?)

The new opera house is on the site of another historic building, the Old Synagogue, which was destroyed by the Nazis before the Second World War even started.

Street sign with the opera house in the background

This street sign says:

Square of the Old Synagogue
On this square once stood the synagogue
of the Jewish community of Dortmund –
Erected in 1900 as an “adornment of the city for all time”
Destroyed 1938 through the terror of the Nazi-regime

Picture of the Old Synagogue

This picture of the old synagogue as it looked from 1900 to 1938 is on display in the lobby of the opera house.

Stage entrance of the Dortmund Opera

My photos in this post are from 2011. I revised the text in 2018.

See also: In the footsteps of . . . Schabelewopski?

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