Once you start talking about Wagner, it’s hard to stop. Nonetheless, this will be my final Wagner post of the season, with a title nabbed from the great Peter Schickele. My New Yorker review of Parsifal is up and running. Over at AC Douglas, you can read a quite different take on Boulez’s conducting, as experienced on an internet feed. I might well have agreed more with ACD if I’d been listening to the broadcast alone. Boulez’s performance of Act II in concert at Carnegie last season was curiously uneventful, even bland. I don’t think the Maître did anything too different in Bayreuth. Yet it was a totally entrancing experience. Perhaps because the music seemed triumphantly sane in conjunction with the staging; perhaps because Boulez was manipulating Bayreuth’s famously blended acoustics to maximum effect. If the interpretation never reached the stratosphere, it never touched the earth either. “Alles schwebt,” Webern once said: everything hovers.
Also, I wish to make a point about Hitler and the dogs. My cutesy post about Wagner’s dog Russ got a most intelligent reaction from the badthings blog, which is usually concerned with matters of cuisine:
It is very nice to have an intimate relationship with "your" past, but the festival form tends to spectacularize it (the past), with all the predictable distortion, trivializing, elision, simplification. I'm not suggesting that Germans need to have a conference on nineteenth-century constructs of national identity every time they listen to Siegfried, but I'm not sure Wagner really needs a human face either. (I'm also not sure that I approve of the allegedly "humanizing" affects of pet love for that matter). The music itself should, of course, be the point, but if you're going to build a theme park you better put the anti-semitism ride next to the pet-lover ride.
Point taken. Bayreuth is notorious for ignoring the Hitler intermezzo, which began back in 1923 and lasted up until (and beyond) the bitter end. When I visited the Wahnfried museum four years ago, I could find only one mention of Hitler in the entire place — a photograph of the man saluting the festival audience from the window shown above. Wolfgang Wagner, who runs the festival, was doted on by Hitler when he was a child. The worst man of modern times was a father figure to both Wagner grandsons. Bayreuth has still a long, long ways to go before it comes to terms with that legacy. Some years ago I wrote a long piece for The New Yorker about the connection between Wagner and Hitler. More information has surfaced in the meantime, most startlingly in Brigitte Hamann’s biography of Winifred Wagner. There it is revealed that Hitler wanted Wieland Wagner to produce an abstract, “timeless” Parsifal; in Wieland’s own words, "[Hitler] wants to have Parsifal performed so to speak against his own Party!!!!” The so-called “anti-Nazi” Parsifal of 1951 might actually have realized Hitler’s innermost dreams of the opera that he once said would be the foundation of his new religion.
So, yes, there needs to be far more comprehensive documentation of Hitler in Bayreuth. Yet even without an “anti-semitism ride,” as badthings so mercilessly puts it, Hitler is never far from anyone’s mind. As I walked around at intermissions, I kept hearing that name on Anglo-American lips. The fact that Hamann’s book was a bestseller shows that the Germans themselves have not forgotten the relationship. The equation Wagner = Nazi is so universal that it is worth saying a few things against it. The most powerful character witness is, paradoxically, Bayreuth itself. I had not visited the festival when I wrote my overwrought 1998 article; if I had, I would have been more gentle. Bayreuth is a peculiarly serene, unworldly, intelligent, cosmopolitan place. It gives off an undetectable spiritual hum. I flat-out love being there — I became giddy when I stepped off the train, because I was about to walk into classical-music Neverland. I am lucky in my job, and one of the luckiest things about it is the ability to write to the Bayreuth press department asking for a ticket.
It was on my first visit in the summer of 2000 that I really experienced the operas in their plain, full humanity. The Ring is a relentless critique of political power; Parsifal is an ode to compassion; Tristan und Isolde addresses love and nothing but. Clichés all, but the language of goodness is always dull. Bombast and violence and hatred are also part of Wagner’s world, but they have their assigned roles, and they do not win out in the end (although the ending of Meistersinger has never ceased to make me uneasy). Wagner is the human race at its best and worst; increasingly, I’m inclined to take what I like and leave the rest. I’m reminded of a line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Britten’s beautiful opera of which I saw in Tanglewood last weekend: “The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them.”