What kind of fools were they?

from the TLS, March 11

Richard Wagner

Mark Anthony Turnage
Royal Opera House

Il faut méditerraniser la musique”, advised Nietzsche, in his final year of sanity. His immediate model in making this beguiling imperative was Bizet’s Carmen, a work whose music, Nietzsche said, seemed to “come forward lightly, gracefully, stylishly. It is lovable. It does not sweat”. In such terms is the object of praise polished, repeatedly, and with the methodical calm of a man who shines his boots to ensure the person he is about to kick will be able to see his reflection in them.

The subject to be kicked was of course Richard Wagner. The same Wagner whom Nietzsche had previously idolized as the redeemer of Western art had now become the last word in decadence, his works and person reflecting and exacerbating the disease sapping all vitality from culture. Of all the insults levelled by Nietzsche at his idol-turned-bête noire, the most damaging is that of “actor”. Wagner, by an ontological perversion which allowed music to say things it was never meant to, had turned music into a vehicle for which “everything which has to strike people as true, must not be true”.

In his polemical excess, Nietzsche proved himself to be as Wagnerian as his subject. Indeed, when one considers Parsifal, the work which seems to have tipped the philosopher over the edge (“an extravagant, lofty and most malicious parody of tragedy itself”), it is clear that Nietzsche is simply using Wagner’s own categories against him. Few operas depict an inwardly turned, decadent society in an advanced state of selfcongratulation and self-loathing with more exactness than Parsifal, just as fewer still put themselves at such pains to create a musical language of truth and, equally, of deception. At the same time, few scores express the meaning of compassion – the key to the drama on stage and in the pit – so deeply.

Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production of Wagner’s final opera, in the refreshingly direct English translation by Richard Stokes, began its life at the Coliseum in 1999. Twelve years on, in what is promised to be its last incarnation, it seems only to have grown in composure. The production circumvents some of the most familiar problems associated with the work, primarily by ignoring the issue of its apparent Christianity, neutralizing the racial undertones, and toning down the traditional Wagnerian emphasis on redemption. The focus on the agency and experience of compassion – and consequently on the idea of redemption as a process rather than an achievable state – shines through with luminous clarity. I struggle to remember a musical or theatrical experience in recent years as affecting or thought-provoking.

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