Stephen Fry: Wagner and Me, cinema screening, September 2010

“You stand waiting hours for a Valkyrie and then they all come at once”. So quips Stephen Fry in a studio at Bayreuth with four Valkyries in rehearsal. Bayreuth is the small town in Bavaria where Wagner built his own opera house, and in this delightful documentary we learn how he acquired the money for this temple to art, specially designed for performances of his own operas in a festival atmosphere of sanctity and enthusiasm. With its world-beating acoustics and an orchestra pit that’s invisible to the audience, the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth was something new, and Wagner was not a man to stick with old ideas. He was the person who put the lights out in opera houses, rather than allowing a well-lit auditorium where one could look around at other patrons in their expensive and decorous clothes. He was the person who as a conductor faced the orchestra rather than the audience, allowing an interaction with the players. And above all he was the man to bring the ideals of Greek tragic drama — as complete works of art with mythical themes — to the world of opera. He called such a creation a Gesamtkunstwerk (literally: complete work of art).

But that’s all background. What Fry gives us is fun and huge enthusiasm. He meets the pianist Stefan Mickisch whose piano renditions of Wagner’s works are quite incredible. I was in Bayreuth the same year and found the Mickisch excerpts from Tristan more revelatory than the orchestral performance in the opera house. Of course that says something about the dull conducting of the opera, and although we hear little of Mickisch’s playing, there’s enthusiasm on both sides when Fry talks to him, as there is during his interview with Valery Gergiev in St. Petersburg. By comparison the interview with Eva Pasquier-Wagner in the grounds of the Festspielhaus is a dreary affair, and though he tries to lighten it up with some slightly off-beat suggestions, she won’t bite. The Wagner family had one genius, and while Wagner’s grandson Wieland was also a creative force, the others can only step inadequately in his footsteps. Wagner said, “Kinder schaff’ neues” (Children do something new), but they can’t. They only think they can.

And what of that force that adored Wagner’s music and really did do something new, albeit extraordinarily destructive? Fry doesn’t omit the Führer, who was welcomed by Nazi-loving members among Wagner’s descendants, but he gives a level-headed, clear-sighted viewpoint, and without sparing Wagner’s anti-semitism he puts it into an oft-forgotten context. In the end it’s the music that counts, and of course Wagner’s new ideas that changed the performance of opera forever. Indeed, the Jewish side of Fry battles with his own conscience, separating the art from the politics and bigotry, and comparing Wagner’s work to a great tapestry on which someone has created a huge stain. While being aware of the stain we must see beyond it to the tapestry itself, and appreciate the work of — as Fry calls him — the greatest genius who ever lived.

In this film, produced and directed by Patrick McGrady, and shot at locations in Bayreuth, Nuremberg and Switzerland, Fry uses his eloquence to inform and entertain us. This is longer than the television version, but never flags for a minute, and was even applauded by some audience members at the end.

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