The

Fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Luke Slat­tery

IT is a big year in the opera world; 2013 marks 200 years since the births of two gi­ants of the stan­dard reper­toire, Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wag­ner. The two ro­man­tic com­posers were an­tag­o­nists in vi­sion and tem­per­a­ment, or lead­ers of com­pet­ing mu­si­cal par­ties.

It’s of­ten said Verdi, whose arias were sung in the streets from Turin to Palermo, wrote the sound­track to Italy’s lib­eral-na­tion­al­ist uni­fi­ca­tion: Va, pen­siero, the slaves cho­rus from Nabucco, is a peo­ple’s lament for a home­land ‘‘ so beau­ti­ful and lost’’ that be­came a ral­ly­ing cry against Aus­trian oc­cu­pa­tion af­ter the opera’s first per­for­mances in 1842. Wag­ner’s most fa­mous cham­pion, in con­trast, was the dark lord of the Third Re­ich and the stain has proved durable. ‘‘ I can’t lis­ten to that much Wag­ner,’’ con­fessed Woody Allen. ‘‘ I start get­ting the urge to con­quer Poland.’’

Verdi’s scores are pro­pelled by Latin brio and pow­er­ful emo­tion: his most fa­mous char­ac­ter, La Travi­ata’s con­sump­tive heroine Vi­o­letta, is a for­mer cour­te­san with a pure heart and her death never fails to bring show­ers of tears from the stalls and boxes. Wag­ner, on the other hand, is best known for a lugubri­ous 16-hour and four-part op­er­atic colos­sus The Ring of the Ni­belung, which was cer­tainly viewed in the 1930s as an ex­pres­sion of Ger­man national spirit. Its sub­ject is the world of gods and god­desses, not the frail­ties of men and women; and the whole thing ends in a con­fla­gra­tion that ex­ults in heroic death. There are pas­sages that are eerily oth­er­worldly if not half mad. But there is no deny­ing Wag­ner’s in­flu­ence on mu­si­cal his­tory. He rev­o­lu­tionised the op­er­atic art form; Verdi, on the other hand, merely evolved it.

While both Verdi and Wag­ner are well rep­re­sented in opera houses across the world this year, there’s no doubt a buzz rises around each new per­for­mance of Wag­ner. Verdi, in con­trast, is be­ing rolled out in a much more muted fash­ion.

Why has Wag­ner eclipsed Verdi in their joint bi­cen­te­nary? There seems lit­tle doubt that a year that has let loose an avalanche of per­for­mances of the com­plete Ring cy­cle in Lon­don, New York, Seat­tle, Frank­furt, Mu­nich and Melbourne amounts to a mass re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion for a com­poser whose name re­mains ta­boo in the Jewish com­mu­nity and whose op­eras have never been per­formed in Is­rael. This re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion has been un­der way since the early post-war years, be­gin­ning in Bavaria in Wag­ner’s spir­i­tual home, Bayreuth, but it has only now achieved a crit­i­cal mass.

One of the rea­sons for Wag­ner’s as­cen­dance this year is that the Ger­man com­poser tends to in­cite a form of be­nign fa­nati­cism among mu­sic lovers. The Ring is de­liv­ered by a mas­sive orches­tra and big voices and ad­mits you to a world of al­most over­whelm­ing sonic tex­tures and the­matic com­plex­ity, or­gan­ised around re­peated leit­mo­tifs. Wag­ner fash­ioned or­ches­tral mu­sic of rhap­sodic ec­stasy.

Of course the mu­sic is won­der­ful. But you can never re­ally sep­a­rate the man or the his­tory from the work — and this is what stirs the coals of in­trigue. His or­ches­tra­tion is al­ways in­tox­i­cat­ing but it’s his moral edgi­ness — among other mi­nor frail­ties the man was a scrounger and a some­time cross-dresser — that sus­tains the am­biva­lence. Wag­ner is loved. Wag­ner is loathed. And he is loathed by some who love him. As Leonard Bern­stein put it: ‘‘ I hate Wag­ner, but on my knees.’’

One com­pany that con­fronted the com­poser’s dark in­her­i­tance front-on re­cently is Dus­sel­dorf’s Deutsche Oper am Rhein. Its new pro­duc­tion of Tannhauser, an opera in three acts about sa­cred and pro­fane love, is set amid the Nazi pogroms. The good burghers of Dus­sel­dorf were unim­pressed; af­ter a stormy open­ing week the pro­duc­tion was can­celled. It’s cer­tainly the case, as the leader of the Jewish com­mu­nity in Dus­sel­dorf told a re­porter, that ‘‘ Wag­ner had noth­ing to do with the Holo­caust’’. But did the Holo­caust have some­thing to do with Wag­ner?

Some­thing rarely men­tioned is Mus­solini’s fond­ness for Verdi, de­spite the lat­ter’s pro­gres­sive pas­sions. For Il Duce’s ben­e­fit, com­poser Pi­etro Mascagni once di­rected a mass cho­rus in Va, pen­siero. Of course Verdi was no anti-Semite — quite the op­po­site. But, like Wag­ner, he was a ro­man­tic; and both wrote mu­sic sat­u­rated in national sen­ti­ment that was used to serve dis­torted na­tion­al­ist ends. De­spite their dif­fer­ences, they share a lit­tle more than an an­niver­sary.

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