A life as dramatic as an opera for Wagner

NOT every life warrants a film of seven hours and 46 minutes, but not every life was as dramatic as Richard Wagner’s. The British film director, Tony Palmer, cast Richard Burton in the title role of the epic biopic, Wagner, which was shot over seven months and released in 1983. It will be screened, with two breaks, as part of this year’s Cork Film Festival.

A life as dramatic as an opera for Wagner

Wagner led a picaresque life. Two hundred years after his birth, in Leipzig, Germany, he remains the most controversial opera composer, because of his anti-Semitism (possibly due to rivalry with more successful, contemporary Jewish composers, Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer) and his music’s later association with Adolf Hitler and Nazism.

Wagner’s life — revolutionary politics and exile, on the run from debtors and cuckolded husbands, court intrigue, depression and dysentery, and a monumental canon of work, including the four-opera Ring cycle — is a filmmaker’s dream.

The magnitude of Wagner’s music is matched by an ambitious film, which utilised 200 locations across Europe, music conducted by Sir Georg Solti, and the acting talents of Vanessa Redgrave, as Wagner’s second wife and inspiration, Cosima Wagner, and British theatre’s holy trinity — Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir John Gielgud — as ministers in King Ludwig II of Bavaria’s court.

Palmer is a multiple Emmy-award winner, whose filmography extends to 100 titles, including two documentaries, on Leonard Cohen and Benjamin Britten, that will also screen at the Cork Film Festival, as part of his role as filmmaker in residence.

“If you make films about composers, as I do,” he says, “Wagner’s life in the 19th century hangs over absolutely everything. You can’t ignore him. At some point, I had to make a film about him. How anybody could have lived his life is just beyond me, and most people’s imagination; most of his life, he was a wanted criminal on the run, yet, at the same time, he composed some of the most important music and theatre works of the 19th century.”

Burton asked Palmer why he had cast him. “I said ‘lots of reasons. Firstly, you’re both called Richard; that’s a good start. More importantly, you both had more women than it is sensible to have. You drank far too much. You’re totally unreliable. You invent history. You have fantastic gift-of-the-gab, but in different ways you’re both blessed with genius. What more reason do you want?’ He just laughed and wandered off, but it’s true.”

Palmer says one of the extraordinary events of Wagner’s life was opening his great theatre in Bayreuth, in 1876. “It is still one of the most amazing theatres in the world. This horrible little man — anti-Semitic, difficult, rude, unscrupulous, who was once wanted dead or alive for 500 Thalers — stood in front of the door of his theatre, as the crowned heads of Europe, with the exception of Queen Victoria, who sent her demented son, the Duke of Connaught, all came up the hill and shook him by the hand and said ‘well done.’ Here’s an artist who is in the centre of the political stage. That never happened to Shakespeare. It never happened to Mozart. It never happened to Eastwood. It never happened to any other artist. From a dramatic point of view, that fascinated me.”

When Wagner was on the run in Switzerland, he would seek out the richest man in town. “‘It’s this chap Wesendonck. He’s a silk merchant. Perfect for me — I love silk.’ So he gets himself invited to dinner with Wesendonck and by the end of the dinner he’s not only got Wesendonck’s wife as his mistress, he’s got Wesendonck to build him a house, not a very big house, but a house for him to live in, and he’s got access to Wesendonck’s bank account, and yet Wesendonck liked him. Imagine. That’s one of many incidents in which Wagner talked himself into a fortuitous situation. He was irresistible. This is not a guy who is running a country or owns a bank, or runs one of these unspeakably awful power companies. He was a man totally without power or influence, yet he had genius. Somehow, he always got away with it — on a fantastic scale.”

Burton thrives in the role, although Palmer says it was a mistake having a 57-year-old play Wagner in the film’s early, youthful scenes. “When he hits middle age, it’s a sensational performance. Who knew that he was going to die 18 months later? I think he got fed up with people saying, ‘oh, he’s an old drunk. He’s thrown his career away.’ He saw doing the part of Wagner, on such a colossal scale, as a really great opportunity to show the world that he was capable of greatness on film.

“When we were doing some scenes with Olivier, he muttered to me quietly, ‘I now know what I should have done in making sure that Richard followed my footsteps at the National Theatre. No other stage or screen actor could have done what he is doing in this part’.”

Although one of Wagner’s defining traits was his gargantuan ambition, Burton’s performance is understated, with subtle humour, never lapsing into the melodrama that could have bedevilled his portrayal; he is helped in this regard by Charles Wood’s wonderful script. When a sickly Friedrich Nietzsche despairs of Wagner, towards the end of the composer’s life, Wagner tells a cohort that he wrote to Nietzsche’s physician, advising that Nietzsche should curb his masturbating and be put on a regimen of vegetables and cold-water plunges for his headaches and vomiting.

Nietzsche, however, played in a wonderful turn by Ronald Pickup, warns Wagner that his “music dramas” might lead to unintended consequences. This is the film’s allusion to the Nazi rallies, carnage and pogroms that ensued in the following century: “You know what this age, brought about by war and the yearnings of power, is in the market for? Music, war, death, ecstasy, torment, bangs and crashes, floods and conflagrations, exquisite neuroses, obsessions, sensual and profane, hand in hand, vulgar, course twitchings of sexual fantasy, and potent, real grandeur. Dangerous elevating and plunging and convincing stirrings in such a soup will feed criminals as well as genius. You’re dangerous. You’re a dangerous man, Wagner. You talk of gods, but you know there is no God but Wagner, yet you have the power to convince fools they might become gods.”

* Wagner will be screened at 10.30am, Monday, Nov 11 at Cork Opera House

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