Wagner’s own extracts, arrangements, and sequences from the operas:
Parsifal: Prelude to Act I, Finale to Act III
Tristan und Isolde: Prelude Act I, Act III Transfiguration.
Der fliegende Holländer: Senta’s Ballad, Song of the Norwegian Sailors.
Tannhäuer: Dich teure Halle, Entry of the Guests at Wartburg, Song of the Evening Star, Der Venusberg
Lohengrin: Wedding Music, Bridal Chorus, Act I Finale
Das Rheingold: Entry of the Gods into Valhalla
Die Walküre: Siegmund’s love song, The Ride of the Walküre, Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music
Siegfried: Forest Murmers, Forging Songs
Götterdämmerung: Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, Funeral Music, Act III Finale
Die Meistersigner: Act I Prelude and Pogner’s Address; Act III Prelude and Scene 5
Performers: Christine Goerke, Catherine Foster, Devon Guthrie, Marjorie Owens, Tami Petty – sopranos; Teresa Buchholtz, Jane Ann Askins – mezzo-sopranos; Gary Lehman, Richard Brunner – tenors; John Hancock, Philip Horst, Julien Robbins – baritones; James Johnson, Daniel Mobbs – bass-baritones.
Bard Festival Chorale, James Bagwell, choral director; American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein, music director
The story of Wagner’s life is absolutely fascinating, and it would be so if he had never written a single note. It is sad, but a fact, that while the lives of decent folk usually make dull reading, the lives of bad hats are nearly always interesting, and Wagner, aside from being one of the greatest musical geniuses who ever lived, was a very bad hat indeed.
W. H. Auden, “The Greatest of Monsters” – The New Yorker, 1969
When I examined the schedule months ago, I was somewhat anxious. The predominance of other composers’ works (Brahms accounts for over twenty pieces, for example), a forum on Wagner’s anti-Semitism, and an in-depth examination of Wagner’s P.T. Barnum-like self-promotion begged the question of whether Wagner would be lauded or roasted. Would Bard’s Wagner and His World beat a mawkish retreat from the Beast? Is this a case of “pleading Wagner with an explanation?” Or, was Bard mounting something of an anti-Wagner festival? For much of the festival, the hours of music (wonderful hours, I say) of Brahms, Spohr, Schumann, Mendelssohn, appeared to be prophylactic doses or the stick held out to a Wagner carrot.
What I did learn was that this Festival, which closed August 23, followed neither of these possible recusant paths. Nor did the Festival necessarily cater to Wagnerian fanaticism, in spite of a substantial presence of Wagner Society members, and the Wagner “Action Figures” sold at Sosnoff Theatre’s concession stand.
Leon Botstein shrewdly addressed the “Wagner Problem,” a multi-headed hydra of an aesthetic-cultural quandary that elicits fierce fire and contention from otherwise rational classical music lovers. Botstein’s opening talk, and the ultimate curve of events, revealed a thoughtful portrait of a genius “in a context,” as it were; but in the penultimate evening, with the performance of the Ring selections, the revolutionary character of Wagner’s music was revealed in its own unique ambit.
What exactly is the Wagner Problem? From the festival’s perspective, it was apparently reduced to four subsidiary ones.
First, there is the simple practical matter of Wagner’s footprint and Bard’s shoe size. Wagner’s incontrovertible genius rests, oddly enough, on seven late works, each averaging four hours. His “middle” operas, three in number, are somewhat shorter, but not by very much. These works are masterpieces as well, but not supernal, and did not jettison the composer to the sphere of influence he became. How do we choose a “representative” work? Even if one can find or define it, a fully staged performance would exceed the budget, artistic endurance, and, most likely the stamina of participants and audience alike. Furthermore, the Sosnoff Theatre and Olin Hall are more chamber size. While the Fisher Center has hosted many opera productions, the forces employed are not large. No single important opera of Wagner could be suitably scaled down. The early operas (Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot, e.g.) were candidates, but, ultimately, another composer’s work was chosen.
Second, Wagner is the exemplar of the worst possible outcome of the “Good/Bad-Person/Composer” manifold. We expect great genius to be a by-product of enlightened, “good” people. Morally corrupt individuals, we think, should not share in the glory of great art. A great genius who was a flawed or offensive human, it seems, requires some sympathetic revelation into possible extenuating circumstances, family trauma, or neurological disorders lest our sense of fairness is transgressed. It simply isn’t right for an egregious moral lout to possess supernal genius. Certainly, educational institutions, the liberal guardians of humanism and equanimity, shouldn’t celebrate such characters. It isn’t fair. Wagner’s egoism, philandering, racism, and conniving are well known. We are faced here with the difficult task of accepting the genius and discarding the man; but doing so vitiates or constrains scholarly exploration.
Third, and as a corollary to the above, since it’s discomfiting to fully credit Wagner (man + creator), one must offer some compensatory attention to those he loved to grind, and give some equal treatment to those opposed to his theatrical and musical innovations. Thus, it was important to hear from both Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer (Wagner maligned them on musical and ethnic grounds), as well as from Schumann and Brahms. There is little need to have an excuse to perform Schumann’s Piano Quintet or Mendelssohn’s Trio in C-Minor, but one felt the many hours of counterbalancing Wagner was almost a moral imperative. Certainly, the juxtaposition of classical form adherents with the chromatic meanderings of Wagnerians made for lively contrast.
Fourth, there is the problem of coherently tracing musical development. Musical and mathematical genius is assumed to be spotted in a genius’ juvenilia. However, as Leon Botstein noted in his keynote address, Wagner’s genius defied trend analysis. So, if we look at his teenage works, connect the dots to the early operas, and attempt a projection, we would wind up with a middling composer. Nothing in the early works remotely suggests the steep asymptotic climb that Wagner made mid-century. What were the real forebears of Tristan und Isolde or Parsifal? It’s hard to imagine Tristan being premiered only a few years later than Verdi’s La Traviata. Performing Wagner’s early or minor works simply augments our appreciation, but gives some credence to the playful suggestion Mr Botstein made that a ghost composer wrote the masterpieces – maybe a Jewish one, Mr Botstein jested. A similar problem exists when we examine Wagner’s lesser-known works. Bard specializes in unearthing rarely heard “masterpieces” that somehow elude the repertory. Not so with Wagner: his lesser-known works are, well, clearly lesser.
A consequence of Wagner the bad guy is the fourth and final Wagner Problem tackled at Bard. It belongs in a special category of its own, since, for some, it remains an insurmountable obstacle to Wagner’s legacy: his egregious and public anti-Semitism. His inflammatory essay Das Judentum in die Musik, which ultimately turned out to be a public relations disaster, fomented outrage and offense. Even at a time when anti-Semitism was common, erstwhile friends and contributors were polarized, many turning their backs on Wagner in his later years. The rise of right-wing Aryanism in Germany is inexorably linked with Wagner’s family survivors and the cult of proto-fascist Wagnerites which formed around Bayreuth at the century’s close. For some critics, Wagner’s operas seem to be ideological platforms for his racist views; some even contend that the music itself is, essentially, anti-Semitic – a view roundly rejected by most. However, the pall which Wagner’s unfortunate essay casts, in light of events long after his death, is reason enough for some to avoid his music altogether.
So, in summary, how can an orderly series of scholarly immersions avoid the logistic land mines of the life and works of one who outsizes practical performance strictures; whose lesser known works and early works are simply irrelevant; whose social views were (and are today) abhorrent; whose legacy is a cultural juggernaut dwarfing the virtuous musical achievement of worthier citizens; and a man whose music is still banned in Israel?
The answer lies in the redeeming power of the music itself. The joy of hearing the full scope of the music from Tannhäuser to Parsifal, with representative doses of the Ring, in resounding performance, with fine soloists, permitted us to dispel much of the conundrum. These were musical excerpts, indeed, but ones few in this century have heard. Botstein offered rarely heard reductions and sequences from the great operas by the composer himself – condensations that were meant to promote the operas throughout Europe, and to convey the musical power shorn of plot, scenery, or any trappings of Gesamtkunstwerk. Botstein likened these concert packages as an equivalent of movie “trailers.” Wagner anticipated YouTube in marketing these weighty sound bites. Not only do these ten, twenty, or thirty-minute sequences admirably capture the radiance of the music, they offer fresh perspectives even for inveterate Wagner fans. Parsifal’s opening prelude seamlessly segues to the finale in Act III; the bridal chorus in Lohengrin is sandwiched in a pair of orchestral preludes. Perhaps the most surprising revelation, noted by Mr Botstein and Wagner scholar John Deathridge, is that it wasn’t the romance of the myths, the exotic staging, or the four or five-hour reverie of endless melody that charmed the masses: it was simple doses of the music, in concert presentation. That Wagner required no specially induced dramaturgical thrall for people to love the music was, indeed, the greatest surprise of this festival.
The performances were among the finest I’ve heard in Sosnoff Hall. The ASO sounded better through these twelve concerts than I recall in the past. There was a burnished, rounded quality to the brass throughout – a quality that was lacking in the Bruckner’s Seventh a couple of seasons ago. Obviously, in preparing for this concert, Botstein and Bagwell worked fastidiously to polish everything. Nothing went awry. As concert performances of Wagner, they exceeded anything done at Tanglewood in the past two seasons – with proper placement of soloists in the front of the orchestra: a strategic placement allowing us to hear their voices without abnormal amplification, and to enjoy their roles as they stayed in character. The acoustics of the hall, the size of the forces, and the placement of musicians worked wondrously. The overall effect was thrilling, and, at times, agreeably overwhelming. While Botstein maintained concentration and intelligence throughout, certain moments were especially memorable. The Lohengrin Act I finale was the best I’ve heard. Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and Forest Murmers were emotional highpoints in Botstein’s readings. The Ride of the Walküre was too apace for my taste, as was the Entrance of the Gods to Valhalla.
The soloists were really unforgettable. James Johnson, who sang Wotan and Sachs, is one of the world’s greatest Wotans: I urge anyone to buy the Cophenhagen Ring on DVD in which Mr Johnson stars in two of the three Wotan Ring operas. Wotan’s Farewell, aptly described by Mr Botstein as one of the most profoundly beautiful scenes in opera, was given an extraordinary reading by Mr Johnson. It’s a grief-laden lullaby of a father to his daughter as she passes from a divine state of innocence and grace to that of a sexually vulnerable human. Soprano Christine Goerke’s interpretation of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde was refreshingly intelligent and articulate, eschewing grandiosity for resignation. The same qualities were evident in Catherine Foster’s introspective interpretation of Brünnhilde in the Final Scene and Immolation from Götterdammerung. Gary Lehman was memorable as both Siegmunde and Siegfried. It was exciting to hear a concert performance of the forging songs – baroque ground-bass variations a la Wagner; the anvil was reduced, however, to a thin tinkle. Lehman and Foster were perfectly matched as the ill-fated lovers in the duet from Dawn and the Rhine Journey. Baritone John Hancock showed great versatility in Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Das Rheingold, and as a comic Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger.
After days of wonderful song recitals, chamber works, choral works either by Wagner’s adversaries, or his own jejune works, nothing prepared us for the Dropping of the Ring on August 22. A mere week before, we were blown away by Schumann’s great piano quintet; the utter grandeur of Brahms’s F-Minor Sonata for Two Pianos was still vivid from the night before. But when the nuclear event occurred, none of us were the same; nothing was the same. The next day, in its wake, the Wagner event cascaded a chromatic cover over the remainder of the festival – no music seemed to escape unscathed. When Valhalla was razed, we understood this and felt at the portal of the Modern Age. As Byron Adams said the next day in his presentation, “Wagnerians,” no composer is more alive today than Richard Wagner.