SINCE HIS death in 1883, more words have been written about Richard Wagner than about any other composer. His towering repuration roared into the 20th century with the thundering force of Siegried's sword. This was the man who with the first, jarring chord of "Tristan and Isolde" laid the groundwork for atonal harmony. His enormous works -- particularly the 18-hour "Ring of the Nibelung" -- brought an epic scale to opera, and his music was set to his own heroic, intensely nationalistic texts.
It was also his giant orchestra that opened the way for such composers as Mahler, Richard Strauss and Schonberg. And 1899 was the date of George Bernard Shaw's famed socialist interpretation of "The Ring," "The Perfect Wagnerite." In those days Wagner was more than just a musical figure; in Germany especially, his works were a social, political and literary presence.
But in this century events have conspired to tarnish Wagner's stature. The hardest blow came in the wake of Adolf Hitler's co-opting of the composer as a veritable deity of the Third Reich. The Fuehrer once devoutly declared, "Everything that is in Wagner's operas is in the Reich." He also regularly attended productions at Wagner's own theater in Bayreuth, embraced as the virtual salvation of mankind by some members of the Wagner family. And the problem was compounded by the legacy of Wagner's own intense anti-Semitism. As a result, many saw Nazi undertones where previously it was merely German nationalism.The inevitable backlash came, to the extent that even today Wagner's music is banned in the state of Israel.
Furthermore, Wagner's position was eroded by changing tastes. His extended musical and dramatic rhetoric was perceived by those who value the terse and understated as sometimes-interminable posturing. The heroic scale of the operas was likewise perceived by some as bombast, almost camp, a notion perpetuated by Francis Coppola in "Apocalypse Now" as Col. Kilgore's helicopter gunships break out of the clouds blaring "The Ride of the Valkries" as they attack a Viet Cong village.
So, in light of all this, how do Wagner's operas stand up? A recent trip to the West Coast provided a rare test. There was, within two weeks, "Die Meistersinger" at the San Francisco Opera, and, at Seattle's Pacific Northwest Wagner Festival, "Tristan" and the "Ring" operas -- "Das Rheingold," "Die Walkure," "Siegfried" and "Gotterdammerung." This is everything from his finest years except for "Parsifal."
That's about 28 hours in the theater listening to 64 solo singers.
And to answer to the central question, for the listener, is that when both the music and the performances reach sufficient intensity, Wagner is as eloquent as ever. And in the case of "tristan," one goes even farther. Even a good, but not remarkable, rendering is engrossing. It is Wagner's least bombastic opera, and it is also his most perfect work. Somehow, at the end, it always seems hard to believe that you've been sitting there five hours.
That's not true of "the Ring." There are moments that almost inevitably lag -- the rehashes of the action of the previous works, for instance.The very Muses themselves couldn't make these riveting.
Even a fiew of the noble moments of "The Ring" faded in Seattle because of weak singers. The soaring, passionate love duet at the end of "Siegfried," after Siegfried penetrates the fire surrounding Brunnhilde and wakes her from her long sleep, seemed pallid. Neither Janice Yoes nor Elliot Palay has yet developed the necessary vocal heft (this was the English-language version, others sang these roles in the German version). Both were forced to focus almost entirely on just hitting the notes, sort of no-win casting that thorws to the winds de facto such essentials as musicianship, tone, acting and intensity. Palay, who is only 31, has one unusual strength -- he looks tall, trim, and Nordic, with all the other physical assets we readily forgive others for lacking in exchange for their fine singing. Palay does have the vocal strength for the role, but before he masters it he has lots to learn about singing and acting (the hang-dog expression he gets while standing idle is positively goofy).
Since Brunnhilds, Siegfried and Wotan are the most important, and most difficult, parts in "The Ring," the weakness of Palay and Yoes would suggest that the Seattle's English-language "Ring" was a downer. But bass-baritone Raimund Herincx's first-rate Wotan was worth it all (along with excellent work in many lesser roles). His beautiful voice combines the power and mellow radiance of the best Wotans. His phrasing was lovely. He acts with authority, displaying full command of the deeper meanings of the action. And his English diction was the best of any of the 38 soloists. Fortunately, Wotan sings on stage more than any other character; Herincx would be outstanding in any house, including Bayreuth.
Which brings us to an unexpected conclusins. All the best performances at both Seattle and San Francisco were in the lower male range. Admittedly Wagner created some superb characters at this vocal level, but he did the same for Wagnerian sopranos and tenors -- none of whom were outstanding at either company.
Along with Wotan, Wagner's other magnificent bass-baritone role is Hans Sachs, the central Meister in "Meistersinger." San Francisco had the venerable Karl Ridderbush as Sachs, a part he has sung probably as often and as well as anyone around these days. The voice is frayed, but that is less of a problem in the part of an aging man, and everything else was superb.
Kurt Rydl, the singer who made a grand impression when the Vienna Opera was here two years ago, lavished his opulent voice and forceful manner on the role of Pogner. And Gottfried Hornik, an Austrian bass-baritone making his American debut, sang the finest Beckmesser I have ever heard. One emphasizes the word "sang," because this brilliant satire by Wagner of the nit-picking critics who made his life miserable is more often hammed rather than really sung. Hornik maya be a major talent.
Soprano Ute Vinzing, who will be Brunnhilde at the Met this year, sang a perfectly presentable Isolde in Seattle's "Tristan," but many musical and vocal details lacked precision; since she had sung three Brunnhildes in the previous week, her problems may not have been her fault.
It's an old, and valid, homily that the orchestra is the most important character in any Wagner opera. In this respect Seattle is better off than most larger companies, because the 96-member Seattle Symphony is in the pit.San Francisco can't quite match that, because it lost the San Francisco Symphony last year with the opening of the symphony's Davis Hall next to the War Memorial Opera House. Now their seasons overlap, and the opera has created its own orchestra. Wind andd brass disciple was terribly ragged in that most conspicuous and familiar of spots, the "Meistersinger" prelude. The conductors, Seattle's Henry Holt and San Francisco's Kurt Herbert Adler, were undemonstratively workmanlike.
None of the productions was anything extraordinary. The first act of "Meistersinger," though, was quite beautiful, a realistic version of the interior of St. Katherine's Church in Nurnberg. But the outdor scenes were curiously cramped for a company with so large a stage.
Seattle's set for "The Ring" are of the 19th-century variety that Wagner preferred. The caves look like caves, the dragons look like dragons, and the Valkyries have real winged hats and real swords and real breast-plates. Plans are in the works for a new, more streamlined production. But after some of the more confusing symbolic abstractions of recent versions, Seattle's simple realism was enjoyable.
There was one flub, however, that would have utterly enraged Wagner, one of the most rage-prone artists of the tempermental 19th century. At the end of "Rheingold," when Valhalla, the castle of the gods, appears, he gives this direction:
"Suddenly the clouds lift. Donner and Froh are visible. From their feet a rainbow bridge of blinding radiance stretches across the valley back to the castle, which now glows in the rays of the evening sun . . . Wotan and the other gods are lost in speechless astonishment at the glorious sight."
Seattle stages this, the climactic moment in the opera, with a projection on the scrim across the back. But on July 28 the gods had something else to astonish them. The projector was turned without a slide in place, and the scrim reflected bright, blank light. Then, while alla watched, the Valhalla slide was gradually pushed into place as the projection shakily moved in loving color across the scrim until it was properly centered.
Wagner would have thrown away the projection, the projector and probably the technician as well.