FINE LINE BETWEEN THE HEROIC & THE IDIOTIC

No other artist has made such ferocious demands upon his performers and the public. Richard Wagner, an autocrat, not only wrote the libretto and the music; often with total disregard for the human voice; but also flung into the score his detailed stage instructions, which for a century remained the Holy Bible to Wagnerian producers. In 1895, Wagner’s widow, Cosima, wrote to Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the well-known English proto-fascist, about an essay, ”Concerning the Staging of the Ring”, by the noted stage designer Adolphe Appia: ”The stage instructions are in the score and therefore Appia’s work has no value for us”.

Wagner, Siegfried

Wagner, Siegfried

In Richard Wagner’s world everything takes on exaggerated proportions which ordinary human beings often have trouble understanding. The beauty and the boredom, the emotions and the pathos, the climaxes and the alliterations , the vocal and instrumental demands pass above and beyond. The stage is populated by heroes and dwarfs, giants and gods, shining knights and evil monsters. And the music.Whereas Bach comforts you in his granite architecture, Mozart takes you to heaven, and Beethoven moves you with his tormented heart, Wagner overpowers you with the exuberance of his passions. Once he said that during a good ”Tristan” performance the audience should go mad.

The physical demands alone are staggering. ”Rheingold” , often given without intermission, lasts about 138 minutes; the first act of ”Gotterdammerung” , 105 minutes; the first act of ”Parsifal” , 102 minutes. In ”Lohengrin” Ortud is asked to stand in a prominent spot through a whole act and to sing only a few lines in an ensemble. Wagner has ruined more singers than any other composer, dead or alive.

solomonsmusic.net. ''Mime fares even worse, depicted as a stinking ghetto Jew. Siegfried, the Ring's hero, who knows no fear and is free of conscience, hates him merely for his appearance and smell: ". . . that shuffling and slinking, those eyelids blinking -- how long must I endure this sight? When shall I be rid of this fool? I'd like to catch you and end your shrinking and stop your blinking! ''

solomonsmusic.net. ''Mime fares even worse, depicted as a stinking ghetto Jew. Siegfried, the Ring's hero, who knows no fear and is free of conscience, hates him merely for his appearance and smell: ". . . that shuffling and slinking, those eyelids blinking -- how long must I endure this sight? When shall I be rid of this fool? I'd like to catch you and end your shrinking and stop your blinking! ''

Brunnhilde , the greatest woman Wagner created, makes her first entrance in ”Walklure” with the taxing shouts, ”Ho-yo-to-ho,” topped by a ringing high C that would be difficult even after suitable acclimatization, and its apparently murder for any soprano who has stage fright in her throat. Unless the high C is there, pure and free and soaring, Brunnhilde is a flop no matter how hard she tries later on. And if  i solde sings her high C’s in the first act ever so slightly off pitch, she is no longer a queen but just another ” hochdramatische” soprano who isn’t hoch enough.


Wagner’s heroes have similar problems. Siegfried must act and sing like a superman while he forges together the broken pieces of his sword, ”Nothung”. few men look attractive with a bearskin over their naked torsos and fewer still can sing the devilshly difficult ”Schmiedelieder”.  When a ”heldentenor” fails, he looks foolish as ” he cleaves the anvil from top to bottom with one blow” and the anvil doesn’t come apart, or it does, three seconds after the stroke. Such accidents can and have happened in the world of Wagner, with its imperceptible line between the heroic and the idiotic.

Plácido Domingo cannot persuade the Met to lower Siegmund’s music a tone, as he often does in Italian roles, and his German sounds a bit like Spanish, but he did get through it — partly, it seemed, by rushing when he was short on breath, obliging his old friend Maestro Levine to hurry the pace as well. Yes, he’s a miracle, and he plays this life-battered hero well, but it might be time to call it a career, at least as a Wagner tenor. \’\'”]Wagner. Rheingold. ''René Pape as Fasolt, John Tomlinson as Fafner and Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia [Photo by Beatriz Schiller/MetropolitanOpera] Plácido Domingo cannot persuade the Met to lower Siegmund’s music a tone, as he often does in Italian roles, and his German sounds a bit like Spanish, but he did get through it — partly, it seemed, by rushing when he was short on breath, obliging his old friend Maestro Levine to hurry the pace as well. Yes, he’s a miracle, and he plays this life-battered hero well, but it might be time to call it a career, at least as a Wagner tenor. ''

Wagner. Rheingold. ''René Pape as Fasolt, John Tomlinson as Fafner and Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia [Photo by Beatriz Schiller/MetropolitanOpera

” To glorify the idiot absolute in this fashion is to out Rousseau-Rousseau, though Wagner would have scorned the suggestion. In Siegfried he goes by no means so far; but he goes quite far enough. Siegfried is no idiot, but he certainly is an unamiable truculent savage. He has been reared by a dwarf and cripple, Mine, and the first time we see of him is on his entry with a wild bear in leash, which beast he drives at his terrified foster father. The justification is that he feels instinctively that Mine is bad, low and cunning- and it does not justify him: Mine, with an ulterior purpose, it is true has saved him from death b starvation in his infancy, and nurtured him, and the least Siegfried can do was to leave the abject creature in peace.” ( John F. Runciman )

The Meister had a magnificent sense of dramatics. He knew how difficult it is to get people into the theatre and wanted to keep them there right to the bitter end, which is even more difficult. All his mature works with the exception of Parsifal end with overpowering climaxes and the finest music. In ”Gotterdammerung” Wagner piled climax upon climax. After Siegfried’s death and the thunderous ”Funeral March” which sent many to the exits, there comes the overpowering ”immolation” scene. After Brunnhilde has walked into her funeral pyre, the whole music of the tetralogy is summed up in a glorious apotheosis, while the world of Wotan comes to an end in a cloud of atomic greenish-red, and then the waters of the Rhine fill the stage again, as in the very beginning of Rheingold; truly a grandiose conception.

Wagner. ''Here Wagner indicts the Jews and metaphorically links them to the Niebelungs, the curse, demons, goblins, and the lust for gold in the Ring drama. Thus, according to Wagner himself, it is Alberich, the greedy merchant Jew, who becomes the power-crazed goblin-demon lusting after Aryan maidens, attempting to contaminate their blood, and who sacrifices his lust in order to acquire the gold (his "pocket-book"), which would make him the "spectral world-controller' ''.

Wagner. ''Here Wagner indicts the Jews and metaphorically links them to the Niebelungs, the curse, demons, goblins, and the lust for gold in the Ring


ma. Thus, according to Wagner himself, it is Alberich, the greedy merchant Jew, who becomes the power-crazed goblin-demon lusting after Aryan maidens, attempting to contaminate their blood, and who sacrifices his lust in order to acquire the gold (his "pocket-book"), which would make him the "spectral world-controller' ''.

And the same Wagner who gave us the witty and ironic libretto of ”Meistersinger”  also wrought the incredible beauty of Parsifal and so affected all music after him, from Bruchner and Mahler to Schoenberg and Berg, including those composers who tried hard to stay out of the charmed circle. Wagner had the artistic vision of the timeless genius. However, he felt himself misunderstood, and near the end of his life was so disgusted with the indifference of the German people toward his Hall of Fame in Bayreuth that he seriously contemplated immigration to America. But he also misunderstood himself when he prepared his immortalization while still alive. Long after his death the people who had been around him were so terrified of breaking tradition that they almost ruined Wagner.

That said, a major problem with Wagner is that a considerable part of his work is uninspired, pompous, monotonous and quite boring. For example, Isolde’s hate-love outbreaks in the first act of ”Tristan”  and the hero’s feverish hallucinations in the last act have tired many to near death. Many also don’t enjoy the slow-motion gestures and endless monologues in the first act of ”Walklure” while waiting for the love duet. Too much filler, not enough killer.

Wagner. Brunnhilde

Wagner. Brunnhilde

”From a “sense of life” point of view, this opera was the worst thing you could imagine. Wagner was fully in love with Schopenhauer’s philosophy by this stage of his career, so that the whole opera is just full of yearning from Tristan and Isolde about how wonderful it would be to be dead instead of having to endure such a strong and passionate love. There are even two lines that spoken by each character explicitly saying that when they die they will become one with the Universe – in that old Buddhistic ideal Schopenhauer advocated.”

Fanatical Wagnerians , or Wagnerites claim that not a single note must be cut in the Meister’s work. During the first Bayreuth festival, in 1876, Richard Wagner actually told his artists, ”Children create something that is forever new. If you stick to the past, you will be a a sad bunch of artists”. This was not always understood, even by artists. During the nazi regime the composer Hans Pfitzner, who should have known better, called for a law ”to protect works of art against willful desecration”.

The mixed emotions about Wagner are shared by many people who admire the beauty, passion and sweep of the music but are repelled by what could be termed his ”Hippodrome Complex”; an imperious, stupendous, humorless demands for ships, dragons, swans, fires, suspended Rhine Maidens, and collapsing castles, grandiose holocausts and clanking armor.

Tristan and isole. Edmund Blair Leighton. ''When I mention Richard Wagner, you probably think of one other man: Adolf Hitler. This is unfortunate. I’m not going to deny that Wagner was an anti-Semite, or that many of his views were repugnant, but he was long dead decades before fascism had even been dreamt of. In fact, Wagner was for much of his life an anarchist: he spent years in exile after taking part in the failed 1849 revolution in Dresden. Most of his operas–especially his 16-hour, 4-night cycle, the ‘Ring’–are about the inability of humans to express themselves, and particularly their love, within capitalist society.'' blog.varsity.co

Tristan and isole. Edmund Blair Leighton. ''When I mention Richard Wagner, you probably think of one other man: Adolf Hitler. This is unfortunate. I’m not going to deny that Wagner was an anti-Semite, or that many of his views were repugnant, but he was long dead decades before fascism had even been dreamt of. In fact, Wagner was for much of his life an anarchist: he spent years in exile after taking part in the failed 1849 revolution in Dresden. Most of his operas–especially his 16-hour, 4-night cycle, the ‘Ring’–are about the inability of humans to express themselves, and particularly their love, within capitalist society.'' blog.varsity.co

The late romantic designers never were able to get out from under the Meister’s spell. In so doing they produced lugubrious horrors that delighted beer-filled Teutons of the period of Bocklin. At the Vienna Court Opera in 1902, ”Ride of the Valkyries”  was performed by officers of the Imperial Guard, wearing false wigs, helmets, and armor. The Imperial Guardsmen rode across the stage on the Court,s white Lipizzaner horses. The Opera’s director, Gustav Mahler, a fanatical perfectionist, ordered the horses brought to theopera house in the morning to get conditioned to stage thunder and lightning.

Shortly before the performance the horses were taken arond the opera house so there would be no ”incidents” Unfortunately, horses suffer from stage fright as much as people. The Lipizzaners behaved properly during rehearsals, but at night they were often unpredictable, with lamentable results. Many are still divided on Wagner; his relationship with Nietzsche and decidely anti-Christian viewpoint has created a morass between the work and the man:

David Michael Lindsey: ” Hitler admitted to his closest circle of confidantes that he ”built up his religion out of Parsifal. Hitler idolized Wagner calling him ”the greatest prophet figure the German people have had.” At a visit to Wagner’s grave, Hitler said his heart ”burst with pride” when he recognized his own psychological kinship with this great man. But Richard Wagner was no great man; He was a racist, a radical, a rebel, a pervert, a degenerate, an adulterer, a wife stealer, a promoter of incest, a self absorbed tyrant, an egoist, a blasphemer, and an anti-Christian, free thinking atheist given to frequent bouts of self consciousness, depression, paranoia, thoughts of suicide, mania and uncontrollable bursts of anger.”

”Norse mythology specified that the destruction of the world would be preceded by a cataclysmic final battle between the good and evil gods, resulting in the heroic deaths of all the ‘good guys.’ The German word for this earth-shattering last battle was ‘Götterdämmerung .’ Literally, ‘götterdämmerung ‘ means ‘twilight of the gods’ (‘Götter’ is the plural of ‘Gott,’ ‘god,’ and ‘Dämmerung ‘ means ‘twilight’). Figuratively, the term is extended to situations of world-altering destruction marked by extreme chaos and violence. In the 19th century, the German composer Richard Wagner brought attention to the word ‘Gotterdammerung’ when he chose it as the title of the last opera of his cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, and by the early 20th century, the word had entered English.”

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