MUSIC: The Perfect Wagnerite

Last week, the Bayreuth Festival, established in 1876 by composer/writer Richard Wagner as a way to get his gargantuan operas performed exactly the way he wanted them, finally resolved a dispute over which of Wagner’s descendants would take over running the Festival. To briefly sum up, when the Festival re-opened after the war, it was run by Wagner’s grandsons, Wieland and Wolfgang. Wieland died in 1966, but Wolfgang ran the Festival until this year, when he stepped down. Two different sets of Wagners vied for control, with two Wagner great-granddaughters finally getting the nod.

This is all pretty big news in Germany, where the Bayreuth Festival is still a big deal. I’m not sure how it’s been playing around the world, even among Wagner buffs; many reports on the controversy have noted that Bayreuth is no longer really a Mecca for Wagnerian productions, and other theatres around the world, even other theatres in Germany, are more likely to offer the best singers and the most interesting productions.

In a way, Wagner has the same problem as Gilbert and Sullivan, which is a pretty damned weird thing to say, but it’s true. Wagner was one of the first people in the history of theatre (not just opera, theatre in general) who tried to control all aspects of production and make them all reflect one man’s personal vision. He wrote the music, he wrote the texts, he wrote incredibly detailed stage directions and expected them all to be followed, he supervised the productions and created a whole theatre with a unique design — including, most famously, a cowl to hide the orchestra pit so the audience wouldn’t be distracted from the stage action — just for his productions. And for many years after his death, Bayreuth continued to do his operas with the sets and costumes and stage movements that he’d approved, and theatres all around the world tried to do it just like Bayreuth. The analogy to Gilbert and Sullivan is that they also had a company specifically dedicated to performing their works with the same old sets and costumes and stage business, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, which set G&S style around the world. And as with Wagner, the G&S operettas got performed over and over in the same exact way with the same 19th century style until they slid into irrelevance.

Not that people haven’t tried to make Wagner relevant again, if only out of post-War necessity. Wieland Wagner, as director of stage productions, tried to strip the operas down to their essence, with minimalist settings and with special effects downplayed. Wagner’s operas had two things working against them, one being their immense popularity with Hitler (not to mention Hitler’s immense popularity with Wagner’s family) and their supernatural plots and special effects, which became associated with everything people found silly about opera: the image of Wagner’s heroine Brunnhilde, a Nordic warrior-maiden wearing a helmet and carrying a spear, has become the most-parodied image in all of opera. Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner, trying to restore their grandfather’s reputation as well as their own, tried to “universalize” the operas so they wouldn’t be associated with German nationalism or with hokey 19th century stagecraft.

And in the ’70s, Bayreuth presented a famous production of Wagner’s Ring cycle where the director, Patrice Chereau, tried to follow up on the idea of George Bernard Shaw (a huge Wagner fan) that Wagner’s operas are not National Socialist but just plain old Socialist: he presented it explicitly as the story of what people will do for gold and how the ruling classes (the Gods) try to maintain their power over the world. Unfortunately, while that staging — including a combination of modern and old-style costumes — worked great, it helped influence a whole generation of Eurotrashy, pretentious productions which are far more mockable than the old style of production with a fat lady on a horse.

I’ve never known exactly how to feel about Wagner. It’s not just that any discussion of Wagner has to bring up his anti-Semitism, his crackpot racial theories, and the, er, signals he sends out with some of his evil characters. (The villain of The Ring, Alberich, is an ugly, misshapen member of an accursed race who is so greedy that he will literally renounce love just to get his hands on some gold. What do you think he’s talking about?) That’s the easy part to get around, because many great artists have been horrible people. It’s that his operas always give me this feeling that I’m being hoodwinked — that there is less substance here than the length and seriousness would imply. Wagner’s music doesn’t have a lot of rhythmic energy to it, and he wasn’t really a great melodist; he got around these problems by creating a style he called “endless melody,” where instead of arias he wrote a sort of heightened recitative over a flowing stream of motifs (sometimes representing a specific thing or person, sometimes not). But when it comes time for a great emotional moment or outpouring of character, I often hear… just…. a lot of recitative with maybe a climax in the orchestra. Sometimes I get the feeling that Wagner could plug in any notes under the words he wrote and it would sound about the same. Others hear more specific character and emotion in these vocal lines, and they’re probably the ones who are right, but it sometimes sounds to me like the German equivalent of those old Italian operas where the same music is used for happiness and sadness.

On the other hand, Wagner was one of the few opera composers who really knew how to deal with big issues, including political issues (allegorically) without copping out or looking stupid; the Ring really is about what holds a society together and whether we can build a better society, and that’s certainly more interesting than the question of when the soprano and tenor are going to kill each other.

But the thing about Wagner is that he’s the equivalent of a filmmaker with a loyal cult following whose movies aren’t really good box-office. Wagner’s operas are not all that popular, especially outside of Europe; if you look at Opera America’s listings of the most-performed operas in North America, none of Wagner’s mature operas make the list at all, and he hasn’t had a work in the top 10 since the late ’90s (his first good opera, The Flying Dutchman, is the only one that ever cracked the top 10 lists). This is so even though many of Wagner’s operas aren’t really prohibitively expensive to produce. (Some of them are expensive, but, Tristan and Isolde has not many characters, not many sets, and a smallish chorus, and the first three Ring operas don’t even have a chorus.) The only time Wagner was ever close to being broadly popular was in the early part of the 20th century, when the Met was putting on his operas all the time, and even then I have my doubts that he was really a box-office draw of the calibre of Verdi and Puccini. He is what he was in his time: a cult composer, one of the greatest self-styled cult figures of all time. Bayreuth is a festval devoted specifically to keeping the cult going, and that means it hardly even matters that it’s not offering the best performances; the point is to have a place where everybody in the audience “gets” Wagner, whereas in a conventional opera house, people who do get Wagner have to sit uncomfortably with those who don’t.

Anyway, here’s the end of Die Walkure (the second Ring opera) in the Chereau production, conducted by Pierre Boulez and with Donald McIntyre as Wotan, king of the Gods. I said that there are times when Wagner’s vocal line seems to be just a bunch of notes with no specific meaning; this is not one of those times. This is great character writing and a great example of opera as theatre, a personal conflict (Wotan needing to cut himself off from his daughter) combined with a political issue and a great opportunity for a special effect.)

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