Listening to Wagner

A friend recently asked me how to get into the operas of Wagner. It’s a vexed question, this one, but I’m going to try to answer it from a very personal viewpoint.

First, my experience. I was a choral singer – I started in a church choir at the age of seven – and also belonged to a local dramatic and operatic society. My first on-stage outing was as a page to the Duchess of Plaza-Toro in The Gondoliers. These experiences guided how I approached Wagner – I sought out the choral parts, and there are many.

Rienzi (William Holman Hunt)
Rienzi vowing to obtain justice for the death of his young brother, slain in a skirmish between the Colonna and the Orsini factions. William Holman Hunt.

But I originally found the composer because I was listening to the radio one day, and Rienzi, Last of the Tribunes came on. The entire opera. I listened to it all, not understanding the text (although I did know my Bulwer-Lytton!), but riveted by the music. I think mine is a rare introduction. My wife came to Wagner as an orchestral oboist – so via the orchestral parts in Götterdämmerung and the cor anglais solo in Tristan und Isolde. Knowing that our friend also comes from a choral background, we discussed what we’d recommend and came to this:

Wagner wrote a sweeping flow of music divided into acts, so steer clear of ‘bleeding chunks’ would be my advice to start, although the preludes and overtures collections are better than vocal excerpts. Experience an entire opera – either with cds or dvd (or better still live, when this become possible again). Wagner wrote “total” stage works (gesamtkunstwerk), so watching a dvd gives you the full dramatic experience, although directorial interpretations are very much a matter of personal taste. (Wagnerites will endlessly debate the merits of productions, and on how closely they adhere to or depart from Wagner’s perceived intentions as evidenced by stage directions given in the libretto. Personally I’m happy with a directorial approach that has a coherent idea and carries it through – even if I don’t agree with the interpretation, I will have engaged and hopefully thought of how I’d do it, rather than just disliking what I see in front of me. But this is not the place for discussion of productions.)

Wagner wrote some complex music, which ranges from early bombast (Rienzi) via Italianate lyricism (Lohengrin) to almost atonal (Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal). First timers might do well to avoid an entire Ring cycle with the commercially over-used ‘bleeding chunks” (the theme tune to Apocalypse Now anyone?) which diverts you from the intricate thematic complexity of the whole piece. (There’s a lot of guides to the Ring, telling you what to listen for and the leitmotif system – but it’s quite a mathematical approach. I’d recommend just listening. Experience it. Don’t worry too much about recognising someone’s signature tune.)

My wife and I came up with an opera each and one common one to start:

  • Common starting point: Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman)
    We went to a chorus rehearsal of Flying Dutchman at the Royal Opera House in one of the studios – we heard sections of Act III many times – it was deafening, but what an experience!
  • Next: either Lohengrin (my choice) or Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremburg)
    Both of these have hugely enjoyable and brilliantly written choral sections. Meistersinger opens with a Bach chorale and highlights include a riot in Act II and a glorious quintet in the final act (and I have never forgotten the description of a production at Saffron Waldon as Wagner’s “rip roaring comedy” – don’t be fooled). Lohengrin’s Prelude to Act I is marvellous theme weaving and encourages slow breathing; the story arc is simple and heart-breaking.
  • If you’ve got through those without wanting to run away, I’d recommend Wagner’s final opera Parsifal – again the choral sections are towering, from the increasingly menacing grail knights to the sugary waltzes of the flower maidens.
  • Then you can go two ways: Tannhäuser, more medieval legend and a splendid pilgrim’s chorus or Tristan und Isolde, looking forward to more atonal music, but with that gloriously resolved Tristan chord (over which musicologists drool).
  • Fit the Der Ring des Nibelungen in anywhere you can spare four days/sixteen hours.
  • If you’re still wanting more and like song cycles, there are the Wesendonck Lieder, originally written for female voice but now often sung and recorded by tenors.

What versions should I listen to?

Flying Dutchman: Critics will argue for Keilberth, Klemperer or Solti. I’d go for any of these.
We suggest von Karajan, because he gets so much texture from the music. His singers almost take a back seat, José van Dam’s Dutchman restrained, Dunja Vejzovik slightly unhinged (first requirement for a Senta) and Peter Hofmann an unusually muscular Erik (I particularly like their Act II exchange).

Lohengrin: Critics argue for Kempe, Sawallisch and Kubelik. We recommend the Janowski Lohengrin, with Klaus Florian Vogt in the title role. He’s marmite, but thrilling and the almost white noise of his voice is appropriate. I have a soft spot for two dvds: Nagano with Munich Opera (Jonas Kaufmann as Lohengrin) and Nelsson at Bayreuth (Götz Friedrich directed this version with his wife as Elsa).

Meistersinger: Sawallisch (Munich, 1993, cd) – probably my favourite Hans Sachs (Bernd Weikl). The Glyndebourne Meistersinger (Janowski, dvd) is a delight and I’d make a play for the last Bayreuth production (Jordan, 2017, directed by Barrie Kosky, dvd) just for the concept (although having seen it in house and on dvd, I think it was more successful in house).

Tannhäuser: Critics recommend Solti and Sinopoli (although Domingo sings on the Sinopoli and I just can’t get on with his Wagner). Again, I’d go to the dvd of the Bayreuth Tannhäuser that caused such a stir on 2019 (conducted Thielemann, directed Tobias Kratzer). It has a superb cast and a great, coherent concept. But if you can get any recording of Christian Gerharer singing Wolfram, go for it.

Tristan und Isolde. Critics recommend Furtwängler, Kleiber and Barenboim. I, of course, will go for the newly remastered dvd of Bernstein from Munich. It’s an astoundingly textural, fabulously slow version (and probably says more about Bernstein than Wagner), recorded live over several months. Behrens is controlled and lyrical, Hofmann has commitment if not all the notes. As an historical document it is fascinating, as a production (it is semi-staged) less so.

Parsifal. Critics will argue forever on this one – I’m not going to list them… I’ll go, as you might expect, for von Karajan. He brings so much out of his orchestra and singers, just the sheer complexity of the texture of the music makes this my favourite. It was also the first version I ever heard and the one I still go back to in times of stress.  

Where can I learn more?

Gramophone has a page of Parsifal recommendations but the best source is –  Wagnerians recommending versions on cd and dvd

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