It’s almost 2013, the bi-centennial for both Giuseppe Verdi & Richard Wagner (that is, a pair of composers born in 1813).
Last night I watched the dress rehearsal of Il trovatore at the Canadian Opera Company’s Four Seasons Centre. Tonight I watched Stephen Fry’s very personal BBC documentary about his lifelong love affair with Richard Wagner. Saturday Sept 29th will be the opening night for Trovatore, but I’ll be seeing Opera By Request’s concert performance of Die Walküre instead (and catching Trovatore again, later on in the run).
I wonder if the next year will be one long series of forks in the road, as we’re asked to choose between these two giants…?
But tonight was about Fry & his trip through Wagner. Fry is a Jew, coming to terms with the beloved music from a loathed composer. It’s a mostly chronological study taking us through Wagner’s adult life including his Swiss exile, his trip to St Petersburg (an excuse to hear some of Gergiev’s Wagner), and eventual salvation via Ludwig II of Bavaria (taking us backstage at Bayreuth).
In the last portions of the roughly hour-long documentary, we’re confronted with the great cloud over Wagner, namely his relationship to Hitler, the Nazis and their ideologies. Fry muses that the person most hurt by Wagner’s anti-semitism is Wagner himself. The way Fry agonizes over it, it’s as if he wants to talk to Wagner, hoping to rescue him from his future condemnation in the hearts and minds of the world.
Fry is a genuine Wagner nerd, delighted to step across the threshold at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. The film has an odd balance, between his love of Wagner and his allegiance to his own people, particularly when speaking to a Holocaust survivor, a cellist who played in the Auschwitz orchestra.
Fry feels that our modern understanding of the composer has been distorted, by being forced to look at Wagner through the tiny lens that Hitler used, judging him by those same criteria, and in the process missing all sorts of other aspects.
Yet, as Fry says near the conclusion, “Hitler wasn’t the first nor the last dictator to exploit art. They always do so, from the Medicis to Stalin & Chairman Mao.”
Here’s the documentary (enjoy it while the link is still working)