from The Critic

A madman’s guide to Wagner

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

by Philip Hensher

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.

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.

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