Tuesday, February 5, 2013

After Dark, February 5, 2013

On Reviewing Wagner
When the mines are set before you even review
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

As part of this year's celebration of the bicentennial of Richard Wagner's birthday, I sent out about 30 emails to people in every aspect of theatre and music - all people I know well - asking them to write a hundred words or so on "My Wagner." I got five answers. Either I have the email version of bad breath or it is the massive ambivalence people feel about the man himself.

I came to Wagner late in life. I was going to London in the mid-90s and I wanted to see an opera at the newly refurbished Royal Opera House and the only one playing was Tristan and Isolde. Now I had TRIED Wagner before. On a whim, I ordered the entire Ring Cycle on one of those "ten CDs for $1" deals and when I got it, listened to one disc and thought, "I'll never get into this." I sold the entire set at a second-hand store. I agreed with my uncle, also an opera-phile, that I would keep Wagner for my old age. (He's in his 70s now and still doesn't like Wagner.) But I really wanted to see the new ROH in action and understand what was happening on stage.

People hate his guts and his music too whether they've heard it or not.

At the time you could go to a record store and the sales guy, in the classical music department, knew what the fuck he was talking about. The young man at Sam's, a Wagner nut, pointed me to Böhm. He said, almost verbatim, what Shannon Christy says in this review. I told myself I would give this one more crack. I would listen to it three times and if I still wasn't interested, I'd take a tour of the new ROH instead.

It took once... When I got to the prelude to Act III, I wept. (It still has that effect on me.) I began to consume everything. Before I even got to ROH five months later, I had recordings of every one of his operas on my iPod, I had three versions of Tristan (eight at home), four full Rings, two Meistersingers, three Holländers, recordings of the arch-obscure Feen and Liebesverbot (his adaptation of Measure for and Measure) and one of the hideous Rienzi. To listen to all the Wagner on my iPod would take you nearly a week. I read and read and read. I wrestled with the paradox of the man and his music. I tried to understand why a composer who produced such sublimity could also write Jews in Music wherein you find the words...actually I will not quote him because you can literally blindly point to any part of any page and find something incredibly awful and pretty badly phrased into the bargain.

So, simply, you are entering a minefield when you go to review him. People hate his guts and his music too whether they've heard it or not. Now, add to this the cult of Wagnerians who have clubs all around the world to protect the composer's legacy and rise up in arms against the scourge of Regietheater which" infects" virtually every modern production of Wagner (countered only by the proponents of Regietheater who howl if you go all traditional on his ass). Then you have the voices: what I call Wagnerian yodelers mysteriously become stars (Gabriele Schnaut...yes, her real name and the first Isolde I ever heard on stage). Anyone who can vaguely be described as a Heldentenor (heroic tenor) have massive careers despite being Hobbit-sized (Jon Frederic West, my first Tristan). Then there are the looks of the singers...Shannon Christy wandered into that minefield with his review of the recent COC Tristan.

The only thing those who can move past Wagner the man agree on, when it comes to any performance, is that the orchestra must be first-rate. I have been blessed, in all of my Wagner outings, to have that. 


Wagner is not alone in setting out such minefields. You similarly have to question productions of Claudel (a far lesser artist), a fanatic Catholic and Pétainiste who also abandoned his half-mad and cosmically more talented sister, sculptor Camille, to a booby-hatch. How about the Jew in Büchner's Woyzeck? The arts world is full of racists, misogynists and homophobes. Then, of course, there is Shakespeare and his Shylock, Aaron et al. Plus questions of folios, authorship and Regietheater. 

Getting back to the originals, please, now. I feel you pretty much have to put each creator into his or her historical context. Idolators will tell you all of Europe was anti-Semite at the time of Shakespeare and even Büchner and Wagner. Claudel apologists will explain that most of France was Pétainiste. It is unfair, I feel, that we insist our artists be apart from the era they live in. 

The bottom line: is the opus separate...and is it great? 

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