Siegfried and Fafner', 1906. Picture Credit: Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

A madman’s guide to Wagner

You don’t have to be crazy to enjoy Wagner, but it helps

Artillery Row

The German composer Richard Wagner wrote seven operas in his mature style. I’ve been going to see them in live performances for the last forty years or so – my very first was Die Walküre at English National Opera in 1983, I think. I knew most of them quite well before that. The BBC, rather astonishingly now, had devoted ten weeks to showing the famous 1976 Bayreuth centenary Ring on TV, act by act; the summer before I went to university in 1983, I splashed out on what I still think is the greatest of all opera recordings, Carlos Kleiber’s Tristan and played it into the ground.

Among the sublimest utterances of the human spirit

Still, there is no substitute for seeing the things live, in the theatre. Since then I’ve seen all of them repeatedly, brilliantly performed and directed, and some really awful evenings, too. Once I saw Siegfried twice on two successive evenings, the first in Berlin and then (a friend phoned me while I was at Tegel airport with the offer of a ticket) at Covent Garden. (The Berlin dragon cost hundreds of thousands and reduced the audience to fits of laughter; the London one, in Richard Jones’s inspiration, was a pumpkin on a stick, whose destruction proved unexpectedly horrible).

I’m quite a hopeless Wagnerian. I’m never very good at remembering the names of singers I’ve seen, for instance. I’ve seen so many ridiculous whims of producers that I’m more or less immune to them, though a previous ENO Götterdämmerung did rouse me to proper booing. Booing is traditionally part of Wagnerian appreciation – the museum at Bayreuth fondly displays the whistle a patron brought to express his rage at the 1976 Ring, engraved with the date of us. I very much enjoyed, a few years ago, when in Leipzig the truly ancient Siegfried was evidently so shellshocked by his reception at the end of the first act that he took his second-act bow pushing the charming 20-something singer of the Woodbird in front of him, like a human shield.

Anyway, I’ve seen them a lot, and have come to some tentative conclusions about the bits I like, and the bits that I wouldn’t care if I never saw again. Much of it is in my view among the sublimest utterances of the human spirit. A good deal of it is so expertly put together that it survives even a third-rate performance — I would say that the second act of Götterdämmerung brings the heart into the mouth, however close to retirement the singers are, however ludicrous the director’s concept. Some of it needs careful handling, singers on top of their form, and an orchestra who knows the piece backwards.

Wagner, I am afraid, does that to you.

Once I sat down in a London opera house and knew within thirty seconds of the start of Die Meistersinger that the next six hours were going to be terrible – the orchestra or the conductor just didn’t understand the idiom. On the other hand, a couple of months back I had the privilege of sitting in the front row in Vienna, and watching the peerless orchestra navigate Tristan under the wonderful Philippe Jordan with incomparable confidence, swaying like a wheatfield under wind. That can be among the great experiences of the world.

With that in mind, I put together a personal list of the nineteen acts of Wagner’s mature operas, going from the ones I still, after years, find a real test of endurance, to the ones that have transformed my life. Here goes.

19. Third act of Siegfried. I never look forward to it, and once or twice I’ve actually left early if I don’t think the Siegfried is going to be up to it.
18. First act of Meistersinger. It’s actually a committee meeting. It’s perfectly OK. I once got told off at Glyndebourne for yawning during it.
17. Rheingold. The first of the mature operas, and though it begins and ends with amazing power, it still tests your patience in the middle.
16. Third act of Götterdämmerung. A controversially low placing, but the pressure of greatness I think finally defeated even Wagner – there are awesome things in it, but the proportions are all over the place and (not something you often say about him) it’s too short.
15. Third act of Parsifal. It’s beautiful and transformative, but just not as musically rich as the first two.
14. First act of Siegfried. The prelude is the most impressive in the whole Ring – the last twenty minutes stupendous. In between it gets a little gruelling, I fear.
13. Second act of Meistersinger. Some top things, but I’ve started to dread the way producers insist on playing it for laughs when it’s just so unfunny.
12. Second act of Walküre. Wotan’s monologue and the scene with Fricka are badges of seriousness among Wagnerians – “of course it’s the point of the whole Ring” – but I just think it’s a bit the-plot-so-far. Rescued by the glorious scene of Brünnhilde announcing his death to Siegmund.
11. Second act of Tristan. Now, in some ways this has the two best things Wagner ever wrote – the opening conversation between Isolde and Brangäne, and the incomparably beautiful passage of Brangäne warning from offstage. But the huge love duet takes a long time to start to work as a love duet, and Lord that King Mark at the end bores me.
10. Third act of Meistersinger. Despite the great quintet and Sachs’s beautiful monologue, this is definitely the moment when even the most unideological member of the audience will start wondering about the performance history of the piece, and one or two of the people who have liked it rather too much. One day we’ll forget all about that aspect of it.
9. First act of Tristan. The prelude of course, but the last ten minutes, as the attendants try to get Isolde ready to meet her new husband while she’s dementedly tearing the clothes off her new lover still makes the jaw drop. I wish Kurwenal were a more exciting presence, though. (He gets there by the third act).
8. Second act of Siegfried. I dash back into the opera house for this one – I just love it. Fafner is one of those old grumps who just needs a bit of a cuddle I reckon. The last two minutes are breathtaking, Wagner at his most exquisitely, prestissimo Biedermeier. I bet orchestras love that coda.
7. Second act of Parsifal. One of Wagner’s most extraordinary inventions. The orchestra sounds like nothing on earth – the seductions are utterly convincing and utterly horrible. You resist and resist, and then surrender.
6. First act of Walküre. The love duet on the TV, from the 1976 Bayreuth Ring, is what lured me in to start with. It’s on youtube, and has all its force. The piece works infallibly in any case – a three-role chamber drama with a massive shag at the end.
5. Second act of Götterdämmerung. The moment when it’s clear that the composer of Grand Opera survived in Wagner – the villain Hagen summoning the vassals is thrilling, and there’s even a Trio of Vengeance. I love it.
4. Third act of Walküre. Begins with the Ride of the Valkyries – ends with Wotan bidding farewell to his favourite daughter and the theatre going up in flames. I can’t imagine anyone not falling for this.
3. First act of Götterdämmerung. It’s seriously underrated, but it has a magnificent love duet, an awesome orchestral transition, a drama of extraordinary psychological truth. It might be the most perfectly structured really long piece of music ever.
2. First act of Parsifal. There’s an old but bogus tradition that you don’t applaud at the end of this act, but just file out in silence. I tell you, if that ever happens (it never does in the UK, but it sometimes does in great German or Austrian houses) you can’t speak after what you’ve just seen. If I ever get a tattoo, it’s going to be of the first three bars of Parsifal.
1. Third act of Tristan. It ought to be universally acknowledged that this 75 minutes is the greatest piece of music ever written. At this point you are free to argue, or indeed to say that the person making this claim is a bit of a madman.

On the whole I wouldn’t complain at being called a madman. Wagner, I am afraid, does that to you.

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