Wagner Operas Interview

Here's a short discussion about Wagner's operas with freelance classical music writer Paul Pelkonen, who writes reviews of concerts, performances, CDs and DVDs at his wonderful classical blog Superconductor. Thanks, Paul!

Which is your favorite of Wagner's operas, and why?

I've seen all ten of the "canon" operas in the theater. I like them all for different reasons, but I tend to favor the later "half" of the canon.

My favorites are Parsifal for its timeless quality, Meistersinger for its complexity and joy of living, and Siegfried, because it's the most under-rated and in some ways, optimistic chapter of the Ring.

If I had a least favorite it would probably be Dutchman - I like the overture but I'm not crazy about the opera itself.

What's the greatest, most moving recording you've heard of that opera?

I picked three operas so I'll give you three recordings.

For Parsifal, Hans Knappertsbutsch's 1962 recording from Bayreuth is pretty definitive. But I'll put in a good word for Pierre Boulez and his transluscent recording made at the Festspielhaus in 1971.

Wolfgang Sawallisch's fine recording of Meistersinger has a good cast with a young Ben Heppner as Walther. I've owned it for years.

And for the Ring, I like the Karajan recording with the Berlin Philharmonic. Blasphemy, I know.

Who is the best conductor of Wagner alive today?

Daniel Barenboim is brilliant in Tristan. I've seen James Levine conduct many times - he captures the epic sweep of the works but sometimes takes a very slow tempo and draws out textures and musical ideas that a faster conductor may have left buried in the score.

Pierre Boulez is a brilliant Wagner conductor - and people don't realize how much influence Wagner's music has had on his compositional process. My favorite conductor of all time (and he was before my time) is Hans Knappertsbusch.

What kind of productions of Wagner's operas do you like? What do you think of productions nowadays in comparison with productions of yesteryear?

I'm in favor of modern (or even post-modern) productions of Wagner operas as long as they make theatrical sense.

The Patrice Chereau production of the Ring (from 1976) is a good example of a "smart" way to do Wagner - with an over-reaching central idea that makes for compelling onstage drama.

My favorite production (and it's one I saw on DVD) is the Harry Kupfer version of the Ring, set in a dark post-modern world "after the bomb."

That said, the current Met production by Robert Lepage is fascinating. Das Rheingold was in some ways very traditional, using modern technology to tell the story instead of papier-mache rocks. I'm really excited to see Walkure in the coming spring, but we won't know how the "whole" Ring works until we get to the end of Gotterdammerung.

What do you think the popular opinion/conception of Wagner is these days, and will interest in his work grow?

People are amazed when they learn how important Wagner has been to European history and culture. The Ride of the Valkyries is instantly recognizable, thanks to Bugs Bunny and Apocalypse Now. Lohengrin is the origin of the tune "Here comes the bride."

Unfortunately, that same opera gave us "Sieg Heil" (it's in the first act) and may have been where Hitler got the idea to call himself the "fuhrer". Wagner's image will forever be tarnished by Hitler's adulation, the Nazis' actions and his own anti-Semitism expressed in many of his writings. That is unavoidable.

However, Wagner's music and his theatrical genius have survived the Nazis' perversion of his works. His theatrical ideas (lowering the lights during a performance, for example) have influenced Western opera, theater, and film to this day.

His musical style paved the way for the works of Debussy, Richard Strauss, and ultimately the film music of John Williams and Alan Silvestri. And today, his own works are used to provide acid political commentary on historical events.

One wonders what the composer would have thought of this Deutsches Staatsoper DVD of Rienzi which recasts the entire opera as an allegory of Hitler's rise and fall.

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