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Engaging Wagner

Posted by acdtest on February 23, 2003

Engaging Wagner

eblogger Greg Hlatky writes:

I’ve always had trouble assimilating the later (i.e. post-Tannhäuser) operas [of Richard Wagner]. […] My hypothesis: Wagner’s operas are so closely tied to the theater that unless one actually attends a live performance, or at the very least can imagine the theatrical context while listening to a recording, something of Wagner’s genius is lost.

and then invites comment from myself.

It’s quite true that Wagner’s music-dramas (i.e., his works post-Lohengrin) are theatrical (i.e., of the theater) to the very bone, which is to say one can’t experience them with any degree of real comprehension by simply listening to the singing as one can in the case of ordinary (i.e., Italian-form) opera. More to the point, Wagner’s music-dramas each constitute an organic dramatic whole that must be experienced in toto to be understood. One need not attend a live performance to experience that dramatic whole, however. In fact, given the Eurotrash nature of most live performances of Wagner today, one is well advised to stay as far away as possible from the theater. The trick is to visualize in the mind’s eye the drama that’s being played out in the organic union of libretto and music.

That means, of course, with Wagner’s music-dramas — and unlike Italian-form opera — one must at all times know pretty much verbatim what the singers are actually saying, as it’s not songs they’re singing, but dialogue just as in staged straight drama. Also, and again unlike Italian-form opera, Wagner’s music-dramas don’t traffic in soap-opera melodrama and cookie-cutter plots, and to have only the gist of what the characters are saying is to become hopelessly lost within, or miss completely, the intricate web of dramatic and psychological complexities and nuance that are fundamental, integral, and essential characteristics of all Wagner’s mature works.

Perhaps even more importantly, and once again unlike Italian-form opera, without knowing what the characters are saying as they’re singing, one will miss totally the organic dramatic synergy of the libretto with the music as that music issues from the orchestra in which resides the very core and essence of the (music-)drama, the libretto giving the necessary particular and concrete dramatic and narrative details which are at once both the (music-)drama’s armature and context which music alone is incapable of conveying.

In short, while one can in large part engage Wagner’s early works in just the same way one engages an opera by, say, Verdi or Puccini, for any of Wagner’s mature works that simply won’t do, and attempting that sort of engagement is a virtual guarantee of missing most of what Wagner’s colossal genius has to offer.


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