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  • A Picture-Perfect Man?Senta, Absorption, and Wagnerian Theatricality
  • David J. Levin (bio)

In my recent work, I have been trying to trace the emergence of Wagner's Manichaean dramaturgy—the ways in which his works figure the aesthetic world in bipolar terms. Wagner's published writings repeatedly model a series of motivating tensions—between what is ostensibly French and what German, for example; or between the cosmopolitan and the rural, opéra comique and romantic opera, surfaces and depth, spectacle and absorption. More important, Wagner's stage works repeatedly allegorize this aspiration—rendering the bipolar appeals (and manifest shortcomings) of each oppositional term in order to clear the way for the advent of Wagner's own aesthetic practice (which will come to see itself as a transcendent synthesis of each of these oppositional pairings). In the larger project of which this article forms a part, I seek to trace this development through Wagner's middle-period works, since I think it emerges there in varied if invariably suggestive ways. In this essay, I will focus on Der fliegende Holländer.

While the middle-period works share a Manichaean dramaturgy, that dramaturgy takes different forms in each work. In Der fliegende Holländer—this will be my thesis—the bipolarity is organized around modes of perception onstage and in the auditorium. That is, the piece presents us with a panoply of characters who see and express things in very distinct ways. It is a form of operatic tourism. But unlike conventional tourism—where we are introduced to exotic locales in order to look in on them—Der fliegende Holländer introduces us to a variety of ways of looking out at the world. Thus: Weltanschauungs-tourism. There is a specific theatrical logic to this mode. For just as it is important to this piece that it give voice to distinct ways of seeing the world—that it give voice to specific Weltanschauungen—it is equally important that it situate us in relation to those Weltanschauungen. Which is to say, the piece's interest in a variety of ways of looking out at the world models and solicits in turn a specific way for us in the auditorium to apprehend—to look in upon—the piece.

For the purposes of this article, I will concentrate, as the work does, on Senta. But the program pursued in Der fliegende Holländer is by no means restricted to her. As I review an impromptu list of characters and their associated modes of vision and expression, note that the work inflects each of these modes, with one vital exception, as flawed. That is, Wagner introduces us into a world in which [End Page 486] perceptions are recognizably askew. At the same time, the work proposes a cure to this perceptual and representational ailment. So: how do characters perceive the world in this piece—and how does the piece inflect their perception?

Let us begin with Daland, who has a keen eye for material gain: one glance at the Dutchman's jewels, and he's offering up his daughter, Senta, in marriage. And his mercantilistic gaze has a familiar musical signature, the amiable music of Auber and French opéra comique. The girls at their spinning wheels seem similarly mercantilistic, with one eye on the materially productive task at hand, and another on the treats their boyfriends will bring home from afar. For his part, Erik's perspective is less a worldview than a stay-at-home view; his gaze is alternately tender and censorious, and either way, it is inflected as fundamentally inhibiting. His act 2 cavatina, with which he would lasso Senta back into his small-town world, is suffused with Biedermeier sentiment and its attendant expressive conventions.1 On the other hand, the Dutchman's condition determines his mode of perception: he is, after all, damned to a seemingly permanent tourism, forever in transit, with no place to call home, as we are reminded throughout the piece.2 The resulting vision and expression that he embodies is famously dark, despairing, even dangerous. Here, then, is romantic, Byronic depth (ironically consigned to the ocean's surface) in contradistinction to Daland's Auberian mercantilism...


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