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Saturday, August 29, 2015

Film Review: Just Don't Lend Him Money

Sir Richard Burton as Richard Wagner.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Obsessive genius: Sir Richard Burton as Richard Wagner in Wagner.
Image © 1983 Hungarofilm/Kultur.
The turbulent life of composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) is a fascinating and at times repellent subject. Tony Palmer's film is now available on Amazon Prime, allowing the curious and the dedicated to take a leisurely tour through this  expansive retelling of the convoluted life of the German composer. Divided here into three manageable episodes of three hours each, it is an experience that all serious Wagner lovers should try at least once. Then again, the same may be said of a trip to Bayreuth.

Wagner boasts a dazzling cast (including major Shakespearean actors and several prominent Wagner singers of the late '70s and early '80s. They are  led by Sir Richard Burton, fulfilling a lifelong ambition in the title role. Filmed in many of the actual locations where Wagner lived and worked, the visuals are accompanied by excerpts from 11 different Wagner operas played by the London Symphony Orchestra under the reliable baton of Sir Georg Solti. This film is exhaustive and exhausting. Like Wagner's longest operas (themselves only half as long as this film's nine hours,) Palmer's biopic requires both faith and endurance.

Wagner opens in 1840s Dresden, where the composer has found some early success as a conductor and some notice thanks to operas like Rienzi and Der Fliegende Holländer. But Wagner is stuck. He is a moribund marriage to Minna, played here by Gemma Craven as a one-note nag with a laudanum addiction. He chafes at his status as a minor composer more respectd for his skill with Beethoven and Weber than his own work. He gives long-winded revolutionary speeches (one uncomfortable scene addressing the Junge Deutschland movement reminded this viewer of a Nazi rally) and sacrifices his career, his post as kapellmeister and very nearly his life after the Dresden uprising of 1849 is crushed by marching Prussian troops.

Fleeing to Zurich under a false passport, Wagner finds asylum with silk merchant Otto von Wesendonck. (Richard Pasco) He also falls hard for Otto's wife Mathilde (Marthe Keller). This torrid  romance angers Minna but also provides the inspiration Tristan und Isolde. In these scenes, the viewer can hear the first strains of Wagner's "music of the future" emerge from the piano. The performance of the first "Tristan chord" is a thrilling moment, coming just as this ill-fated romance bursts into flower. When Minna intercepts one of Mathilde's love notes to Richard, Otto throws the Wagners out of his lakeside cottage. Having lost his home (again) and destroyed his marriage, Wagner is on the move.

The film follows Wagner's wanderings. He goes to Venice, where he is haunted by street bandas playing Rienzi and watched by Austro-Hungarian authorities. He completes the orchestration of Tristan by turning the police officers set to watch him into a team of copyists! In Paris, his planned triumph with a re-orchestrated Tannhäuser is soured by an ugly (and fictionalized) lobby confrontation with rival composer Giacomo Meyerbeer. (Vernon Dobtcheff) Mr. Palmer fudges the truth here, suggesting that Meyerbeer as responsible for the riotous disruption of the opening night of Tannhäuser. And then rescue arrives, in the form of the Bavarian monarch, King Ludwig II.

Played by the vibrant Hungarian actor Lázló Gáiffi, Ludwig is a complicated figure lost in his own fantasies, the only man in this vast canvas who may be as crazy as Wagner himself. The staging of Tristan, Die Meistersinger and finally the Ring would not have happened without Ludwig's patronage, although Wagner treats his royal "friend" very badly indeed. This part of the film drags in court politics and Tristan rehearsals, and is noted for the presence of Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson (as "Pfeufer", "Pfistermeister" and "Pfordten", respectfully) a trio of increasingly frustrated Bavarian bureaucrats, and singers Peter Hofmann and Gwyneth Jones as the von Carolsfelds, the couple who sang the first performances as Tristan and Isolde.

At this point, Cosima von Bulow (Vanessa Redgrave) becomes an important figure and the complex triangle between her, her husband the conductor Hans von Bulow and Wagner himself echoes the libretto of Tristan itself. The film details the torturous Munich premiere of that opera (and at the same time the birth of Wagner's first, illegitimate child with Cosima, named Isolde.) The ensuing scandal, the increasing madness and paranoia of Hans and Wagner's proflagate spending forces Richard and Cosima to flee once more for Switzerland.

Watch the Dresden Uprising riot scene from Wagner.

It is Vanessa Redgrave's restrained, serene and at times silent turn as Cosima that makes the second half of Wagner work. She is the calm center in Wagner's life, and yet beneath that quiet exterior beats the heart of a fanatic, the founder of what would become the composer's own personal cult. The tenderest moment in Wagner comes in the Triebschen years, when she gets her ultimate reward: waking up to the sweet strains of the Siegfried Idyll, performed here (on location) with the musicans on inner steps of the Wagners' lakeside villa. The last act moves to Bayreuth and details the struggles in building and financing the Bayreuth Festspiel and the artistic challenges faced and defeated with the first production of the Ring and Parsifal.

Charles Wood's screenplay does not shy away from the composer's ugly rhetoric and poisonous anti-Semitism, particularly when one of Wagner's creditors attempts to call in his debts. The film makes much of the premiere of the Ring and quick work of the Parsifal years. Here, Wagner is shown at the end of his turbulent life, still railing and ranting against a world that had finally accepted his art. The nasty proto-Nazi rhetoric is very noticeable in the last of the film, as Wagner insults his creditors, regularly overextends himself and comes to loggerheads with Nietzsche (Richard Pasco), his father-in-law Liszt (Ekkehard Schall) and finally Cosima. On February 13, 1883, Wagner had an argument over his latest affair, (with the singer Carrie Pringle, one of the Flower Maidens in Parsifal.) He died of a fatal heart attack, but as this film points out, his music remains eternal.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.