Richard Wagner's Overture to The Flying Dutchman is a surpassing achievement on two counts: it wonderfully synthesizes the opera's dramatic content by utilizing themes associated with characters and ideas; and it is, as an independent piece of music, a striking tone poem conjuring vividly the turbulent atmosphere of the sea.
In a sense, the sea is the opera's chief protagonist, the human characters being at the mercy of its impenetrable mysteries and caprices. The Dutchman, in vowing to sail the Cape in the face of all climatic odds, has invoked the devil, and in so doing, has provoked him. Cursed by the evil one to sail the seas through eternity, he can be saved from his fate only by the fidelity of a woman's love. Senta offers her love, but the Dutchman doubts its strength. Senta's proof is first tragic, then redemptive: She flings herself to a watery grave, but the power of her love breaks the curse. The Dutchman's ship sinks in a whirlpool, and he and Senta, transfigured, are united in death.
The opera, its story based by Wagner on a section of Heine's Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski, was premiered in Dresden on January 2, 1843. Because it was too advanced for an audience expecting another brilliant Rienzi - a big Wagner success in Dresden the year before - and due also to casting and staging problems, Dutchman sank after four performances.
-- Orrin Howard