I have had a week of Wagner immersion at La Scala in Milan; four operas, four lectures, and two films (one, Tony Palmer’s Wagner, lasting 7 hours!).  Had Richard Wagner still been alive, I like to think he would have congratulated us and dished out certificates – and we were only the audience!

The reason why doing the four operas in the space of a few days feels like a Major Achievement is that it is. The operas are long;  Das Rheingold  lasts over two hours without a break, Die Walkure is about four hours, Siegfried over three hours and the final opera, Gotterdammerung, lasts over five hours.  So that’s a total of over 14 hours sitting in the dark trying to follow a story that doesn’t make sense.  Apparently Wagner himself insisted that the orchestra should be concealed in a pit and that the house lights should be turned right down.  He was determined to minimise distractions and force us to focus on the drama.  The only trouble is that my body believes, not unreasonably, that sitting passively in the dark is the cue to shut down and fall sleep.

Wagner was undoubtedly a genius and for a mere mortal (i.e. me) to criticise him seems the ultimate in insubordination, but I think it is a pity that Wagner didn’t get the hang of writing succinctly and/or ruthless editing.  The sheer length of the operas makes it an endurance test for performers and audience alike.  The business of surviving tends to dominate all other considerations and this isn’t fair to the glorious music, singing and staging.  Our Ring cycle was conducted superbly by Daniel Barenboim and eavesdropping on conversations afterwards it was noticeable that people marvelled, firstly, that at 70 years of age he had the stamina to last the course and, secondly, how well he had conducted.

Throughout the week, my constant companion was an excellent book called Wagner without fear by William Berger and published by Vintage, ISBN 0-375-70054-4. This book was exactly right for me, written by an author who clearly loves Wagner’s operas and yet has empathy for a nervous virgin.  By contrast the lectures, delivered in Italian with simultaneous translation, added no value for me.  Way over my head.  I met a man who had done the Ring cycle more than 50 times (quite beyond my comprehension!) and he, along with other experienced hands, rated the lecturer.  She had a standing ovation and was presented with flowers at the conclusion of her last lecture.

Was the week the life-changing experience it is cracked up to be?  For me it was more like the curate’s egg; good in parts.   I very much enjoyed the music but I felt irritated that I couldn’t make more sense of the story despite my book assuring me ‘there is nothing to ‘get’ except awesome theatre’.  Some of the performers were staggeringly good – I will never forget Irene Theorin, a large Swedish lady, as Brunnhilde – and the auditorium at La Scala was a breathtakingly beautiful.

And a bonus; we went with delightful friends who were not only more experienced Wagnerians but who knew all about fine wines!

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