It is a curious reality that two of the world’s leading interpreters of Wagnerian opera cannot freely conduct these works in their own country. Daniel Barenboim and Asher Fisch have each presided over Wagnerian productions that have elicited high praise from critics internationally – but these performances never take place in their home towns in Israel where feelings still run high at the mere mention of Wagner’s name.
Wagner was an appalling man. His arrogance was exceeded only by his hauteur. His treatment of women was appalling. And he was a bitter, vicious anti-Semite – until he needed one or other member of the Jewish community for his own ends, as was the case when Wagner was looking for the best possible musician to conduct the premiere of Parsifal. So he was also a hypocrite.
As well, this unlovely figure also dabbled in terrorism. He became involved with the Dresden Revolution in 1849, one of his duties being to make hand grenades, and ended up in exile for some years in Switzerland. Some believe his rudeness was due, at least in part, to a lifelong dermatological affliction which caused maddening itchiness and unsightly red skin blotches.
His life was often as improbable and bizarre as his opera plots. Among his other propensities, he was apparently a cross-dresser – and there’s a letter he wrote to a leading couturier giving detailed instructions about a ball gown dress trimmed with puffed flounces. The bodice, he pointed out, was to have a high collar with a lace jabot and ribbons. It’s unlikely to have been for his wife because there’s no mention of this gown in the detailed diary left by Wagner’s wife, a meticulous recorder of her clothes.
Wagner’s belief in his genius was limitless – and, in frankness, he was an operatic phenomenon. He was unique – and his awesomely vast Ring of the Nibelungen assures him of aesthetic immortality.
Asher Fisch came to international prominence with his landmark recordings of Wagner’s Ring by State Opera of South Australia and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. The authority and skill that made that initiative an event of world interest were on Wednesday focused on the West Australian Symphony Orchestra with Fisch presiding over events.
True, the five Ring extracts presented are some of the most frequently heard episodes from Wagner’s masterpiece – but they were offered in so vivid a way that they sounded as if being heard for the very first time. This is no mean achievement. It was music-making that set the pulse racing. It drew me to the edge of my seat – not only the Wagner extracts but those of his precursors.
Heinrich Marschner was, perhaps the most important composer of German opera between Weber and Wagner: his overture to his opera The Vampire is informed by an eerie creepiness. And phrases were beautifully shaped in Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust. Liszt’s Mazeppa, too, was spot-on in evoking the high drama which is its essence. It’s about a young man who does the wrong thing with a married woman – so her husband has him stripped naked and tied to the back of a horse which gallops as far as the Ukraine. I dare say he’d have found it uncomfortable, embarrassing and scary.
For those coming to Wagner for the first time, Asher Fisch’s fascinating linking commentary would surely have been revelatory; it added significantly to listening pleasure. Time and again, Fisch’s direction of a much expanded WASO (there were no less than 19 brass instruments as well as a beefed-up strings section and six percussionists).
Siegfried’s Rhine Journey was a model of its kind, so satisfying that, as Mrs Gaskell once famously opined about one of Anthony Trollope’s novels, “I wished it would go on forever.” It was a fine foil to the delicate measures of Forest Murmurs.
Siegfried’s Funeral was given a frankly magnificent reading.
On Saturday, bass-baritone Shane Lowrencev will sing arias from Die Meistersinger and Die Walküre. Also on the bill are Richard Strauss’ Don Juan and the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde.
Asher Fisch and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra present Wagner’s World at Perth Concert Hall, September 9.