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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, June 15, 2015

"It Must Have Been the Wagner."

Opera, eroticism and the joys of Penny Dreadful.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Decadence: Eva Greene and Reeve Carney in Penny Dreadful
Image © Showtime Network, used for promotional purposes only.

The elaborate Showtime drama Penny Dreadful is a riot: a gleeful mash-up of Gothic literary figures. Framed as a horror/adventure show and taking its title from the cheap novels of the 19th century, Dreadful combines Frankenstein's monster, werewolves, witches, vampires and a possession case similar to The Exorcist into a heady brew of horror, sex and special effects. Now in its second season, the show has become notable not only for its  intense visuals but for its incorporation of the operas of Richard Wagner into its tapestry of Victorian decadence.

It is Dorian Grey (played by Reeve Carney) who is the resident Wagner addict in the show, choosing the German composer as the soundtrack of his debauched life. The fourth episode of Season 1 shows the elaborate lair of this hedonist, complete with a wide selection of paintings and a working cylinder player (a recording device that predates shellac and vinyl records.) His choice of music, Isolde's Liebestod from Act III of Tristan. As he seduces another member of the cast, he remarks that "this is the only music that still excites" him.

Season Two's fifth episode features a visit to  Covent Garden for a performance of Die Walküre. Here, Mr. Grey is out on the town with his newest flame, the transsexual prostitute Angelique. We see them at intermission just after Act I, where the jaded Dorian is shocked at the incestuous relationship between the Walsüng twins Siegmund and Sieglinde. (The last bars are heard as an opening musical sting.) Attending the same performance, Sir Malcom (Timothy Dalton) and Lady Poole (Helen McRory) wind up under a hotel awning kissing feverishly. "It must be the Wagner," one breathes. Following Walküre, half the cast goes to bed with the other half--or so it seems.

When Wagner wrote his music dramas, he was interested in telling stories that used medieval myths to break through the repressions and conventions of 19th century German society. The protagonists of The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser are or become societal outcasts. The same could be said for  Frankenstein's monster (played by Rory Kinnear) the Wolfman, and the gaggles of vampires and witches that give the heroes something to fight against.

Lohengrin, written as Wagner was involved in a Dresden uprising that nearly cost him his freedom and his life) revolves around another outsider, the Grail Knight who arrives and offers the heroine marriage at a terrible price. At its heart is marriage, and the question of full and open disclosure between a husband and wife.

The Ring (of which Die Walküre forms the second chapter) features incest as a key plot point in its operas, between the aforementioned Siegmund and Sieglinde, and later, in their son Siegfried's  relationship with the valkyrie Brünnhilde who happens to be his aunt. Tristan und Isolde, written in the wake of Wagner's torrid extra-marital non-affair with one Mathilde von Wesendonck is virtually an endorsement of adultery as a means to happiness. Tristan was also the opera where Wagner's radical style reached its height: four hours of chromatic harmonies and no resolution until the end of the last act--the Liebestod.

There have been other composers with their music featured on Penny Dreadful. There's bits of Delibes' Lakme, Bizet's Pearl Fishers and Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila sprinkled throughout the first season. And what's more, the character of Roper has become disfigured, forced to wear a too-familiar mask over half of his face. One only wonders if he will retreat to the basement and start working on Don Juan Triumphant.

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