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TOFs And Wagner

Posted by acdtest on January 5, 2003

TOFs And Wagner

n response to a post of mine on a Wagner list wherein, with the exception of Das Rheingold, I declared the Karajan recording of Wagner’s Ring a “perverse joke” because of Karajan’s grotesque conceit that Wagner — even mature Wagner — should be made to sound as intimate and lyrical as Verdi, a TOF (True Opera Fan; like a movie fan, only worse) lodged objection, and went on to cite his reasons, all of which had to do with the singers involved.

How did I know the responder was a TOF? He went on, and on, and interminably on about the singers and the singing, that’s how. Anytime one encounters a critique of a performance of a mature Wagner work (i.e., those works post-Lohengrin) that dwells on singers and singing, one can be certain one is dealing with a TOF, and safely dismiss the critique as being near-worthless. TOFs imagine that the works of the mature Wagner (from hereon forward referred to simply as Wagner unless otherwise noted) are nothing more than Italian opera writ large and sung in German; a bit like saying the noble elephant is merely a piddling rock hyrax, only bigger and with a trunk.

The mature Wagner operas (more correctly called music-dramas) are, of course, nothing of the sort. They’re animals of a different order altogether from Italian and Italian-form opera, and share with them only the technical apparatus of construction and performance: an orchestra and conductor, singers, a sung text (libretto), an orchestral score, and mise en scène. Beyond that they’ve nothing in common.

If one were pressed to choose the principal element of a Wagner performance — that element on which the success or failure of the performance most depends — the choice, hands down, would have to be the orchestra. Without a first-rate orchestra and first-rate Wagner conductor on the podium, not merely a first-rate conductor, nothing — and I do mean nothing — can save the performance from being less than first-rate; not even were all the sopranos Nilssons, all the tenors Melchiors, and all the bass-baritones, Papes. By contrast, a performance of an Italian opera with a merely competent orchestra and even a mere accurate time-beater on the podium would prove just dandy so long as all the voices were first-rate.

How so?

Because Wagner’s music-dramas are about the drama, the core of which resides within the orchestra, while Italian opera is about the singers, the song, and the singing almost exclusively, everything else being essentially mere pretext and platform.

Perhaps you doubt my word on this (as I’m fairly certain you do). If so, may I suggest you do the following little thought experiment for yourself: Imagine a first performance (first so that one could not mentally fill in anything missing) of, say, Verdi’s grandest grand opera, Aida, done in a house with an almost non-existent budget; so much non-existent that all it can afford beside the singers’ fees are a piano and piano-player. The singers, however, are the very best available; super-stars all.

Despite the absence of all the normal operatic accouterments (i.e., the “platform”) it would still be a darn satisfying even if way less than ideal performance, wouldn’t it?

Of course it would as the core Italian-form opera elements (i.e., the “songs,” and great voices singing them) would remain intact, and the musical and dramatic coherence of the work, such as it is, largely preserved.

Now imagine a first performance of, say, Walküre, or worse, Siegfried, under the same set of constraints.

What’s that? You can’t?

Neither can I.

I remember a particularly revealing discussion I once had with a knowledgeable TOF (in my experience, one of the most knowledgeable, and an opera professional to boot) concerning the long period of silence and out-of-spotlight time a certain famous soprano would have to endure as Isolde in the last part of Act II of Tristan, having but a few lines to sing near the act’s very end. The discussion turned on how difficult that must be for a performer, but, I suggested, Isolde must never do anything during that time to detract or divert attention from the important things going on around her.

The TOF bristled at this suggestion. I mean, you could almost see the hair rise all spikey-like on his head so incensed was he. I paraphrase his retort as best I can remember it: “That’s ridiculous!” he huffed. “Even when she has little to do or sing, do you expect a singer of X_____’s stature to just sit there and be self-effacing? She must be permitted to display the temperament, and star dramatic qualities for which she’s world-famous!”

I at first thought the man was making some sort of ironic joke. A perverse joke, to be sure, but a joke nevertheless. Turned out, no such thing. He actually intended that idiot remark in earnest, and not only saw nothing amiss with it, but thought it perfectly obvious.

And that’s the point. To a TOF it would be perfectly obvious, and nothing about it at all amiss. And the TOF would be right if the opera concerned were, say, Traviata and not Tristan, Wagner’s most densely organic music-drama.

What’s most astonishing to me some 120 years after Wagner’s death, and some tens-of-thousands of performances of his mature works worldwide, is that presumably knowledgeable opera-goers, even opera professionals who ought to know better, still don’t get the distinction. For them a hyrax is always a hyrax, even when it’s an elephant.

And that about says it all where TOFs and Wagner are concerned, and really all that need be said.

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