The Wagner Experience, Review by Dame Gwyneth Jones

The Perfect Gift, The Perfect Possession

Review by Dame Gwyneth Jones

The Wagner Experience and Its Meaning to Us, by Paul Downes-Bowling, with a foreword by Sir Donald McIntyre (London: Old Street Publishing, 2014), 2 vols.

This review came to us directly from Dame Gwyneth Jones, Soprano and President of the Wagner Society of England. We are grateful to Dame Gwyneth for her contribution.

downes-book-coverChristmas is just around the corner, someone very special is having an occasion to celebrate, or you just feel like spoiling yourself! This set of two wonderful books, beautifully presented, truly makes the ideal gift. But not only that! They are a “must” have, a reference to Wagner’s life and his incredible compositions, and are ideal for placing in the living room or bedroom for visiting guests to browse through or for refreshing one’s memory of the stories, the sources, and the lessons of Wagner’s great dramas before attending a performance.

Paul Dawson-Bowling is a retired physician, from an era when this meant “family doctor,” and he takes us gently by the hand and guides us lovingly through this enormous undertaking of relating the tempestuous life of Wagner with great enthusiasm, wisdom, humanity, and psychological understanding.

There have been hundreds of books written about Wagner, but there is no other book quite like this. It is written in a language that is elegant, beautiful, and understandable to all.

One feels that a very dear friend is guiding you through this journey of Wagner’s life, with a desire to share his own love and admiration for the composer in order that you may also share his incredible Wagner experience.

Dawson-Bowling has done tremendous research and delves into every aspect of Wagner’s life and music dramas. One constantly discovers things that one may somehow have missed in the past, like the fact that Wagner had originally intended the scene in Das Rheingold between Wotan and Erda to be with the three Norns. Also, his descriptions of the wildly intense, sensuous relationship with Minna are a revelation. The two met when he was just 21 years old. She was three years older than him, an extremely beautiful woman and a very talented actress. She went through heaven and hell with him on his various escapades, fleeing because of their debts, being shot at by border guards, causing their carriage to overturn and resulting in Minna’s miscarriage, which was probably the reason for her childlessness. She also endured the near shipwreck on the flight from Riga to London, which was the inspiration for Der fliegende Holländer. She was so terrified that she begged Richard to lash her to him so that they could drown and perish together. No wonder that she became the source and inspiration for all the heroines in Wagner’s dramas! She was his muse, and in her he saw his archetype, his ideal, the perfect example for Elisabeth, Venus, Elsa, Sieglinde, Brünnhilde, Senta, Eva, and Gutrune. Mathilde Wesendonck became his muse for Isolde when the love between Wagner and Minna began to fade, but he continued to hope and believe that each new attraction would bring him that same heightened state of mind and being that Minna had brought him.

The first Isolde was sung by Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld, who, after the death of her husband, Ludwig, three weeks after singing the première of Tristan, believed that the ghost of her husband said that she was destined to marry Wagner. She wrote incensed letters to King Ludwig, complaining about Wagner’s liaison with Cosima after discovering that Cosima was pregnant, and was banished by both Wagner and the king. While in Dresden to perform “O Malvina,” I went to visit the family grave of Malvina and Ludwig and discovered to my astonishment that Minna is buried directly next to it.

Richard and Minna were married for over thirty years but were together for only twenty, partly because Mathilde Wesendonck and Cosima entered his life. One tends to think of these two women as being the main loves of Wagner’s life, but this was because Minna was somewhat banished into oblivion by Cosima, who successfully destroyed many of Wagner’s letters and made cuts in others.

The Wagner Experience is unique because not only does it give a brief biography of Richard Wagner, an extensive account of his tumultuous life, and excellent, detailed explanations of the sources and lessons of his great dramas, but it also includes an abundant wealth of glorious illustrations, which are largely determined by the archetypes inherent in Wagner’s operas. There are some very unusual sets of cards: “Liebig’s Fleisch-Extract,” from a sort of Oxo/Marmite company that shows us how Wagner was popularly presented in Germany 100 years ago, and some beautiful pictures showing the style of Wieland Wagner’s productions, which were prominent in the years after the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival after the war. I was fortunate to sing very often in these productions, especially Der fliegender Holländer, Die Walküre, and Parsifal. There are eight of the twelve incredibly beautiful Richard Wagner illustrations from the original oil paintings by Ferdinand Leeke (1859–1923), which were painted circa 1900–1910, a very interesting self-portrait as Lohengrin by Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, which illustrates to us that he not only sang these heavy Wagnerian roles in his 20s (he sang Tristan at the age of 29 and died shortly after from a lung disease, not from the strain of singing the role as is often said) but also inherited his father’s talent for painting. Another surprise picture shows the author’s mother-in-law, Betsy de la Porte, as Waltraute in Die Walküre at Covent Garden in 1935, which conjures up visions of “Ho-jo-to-hos” ringing through the family home and the mutual enjoyment of sharing Wagner’s music, which makes it even clearer why this wonderful book has been written.

However, my favourite pictures are those of Arthur Rackham (1867–1939). These are incredibly beautiful, highly imaginative scenes from the mythology of The Ring, which were my inspiration to all the various roles that I sang: Wellgunde, Ortlinde, Sieglinde, Gutrune, and Brünnhilde. I would have given anything to have been able to perform these roles in these costumes and surroundings and am convinced that many of us would love to see a production in this style again. I would certainly try to create similar visions with the aid of modern techniques if I ever had the chance to produce a Ring myself.

I have become weary of many of today’s opera productions. If I buy a ticket to see Der fliegende Holländer, I want to see the sea, ships, sailors, and spinning wheels, not an office full of secretaries sitting at their typewriters; and I do not want to see Elisabeth going to the gas chambers in Tannhaüser or any of the other annoyances that simply ignore the directions in the score, changing the subject of the piece entirely and suggesting that the producer is superior to the composer.

The public is insulted and treated like idiots who are incapable of forming their own interpretation of the composer and librettist’s work and its effects on their daily lives and morals. It is not because I am old fashioned. To the contrary. I am simply sick of the disgraceful way that precious works of art are being abused by many of today’s producers who often admit that they have no knowledge of the art of opera and are unable to read music. It would seem that their main aim is to create something that is going to arouse protests and scandals and has nothing to do with the contents of the score, which makes them “the talk of the town” and enhances their careers.

Many avid opera-goers have given up trying to show their disagreement by booing and are simply not going to such performances any longer, which is made clear by the empty seats in many opera houses nowadays. In Bayreuth tickets are now easy to obtain on the Internet and sometimes even on the day of the premiere at the box office. This I find very worrying, because if the public is lost, it is not so easy to get them back again!

After decades of placing operas into “our time” with blue jeans, ugliness, and the desecration of sex, these have become outdated, and I feel that it is necessary to return to the truth of the score. This applies, of course, not only to Wagner’s dramas but to opera staging in general. It would also help the new generation to gain knowledge of the various epochs, such as medieval, rococo, and Biedermeier. One only has to look at the popularity of The Lord of the Rings to know that they would also welcome this transition.

The Wagner Experience reminds us of the original didactic aspects of the dramas, which encourage and inspire us to seek our own understanding and morals through the wise lessons and advice in the text and action, enable us to have life more abundantly enriched by the enormous power and beauty of the music, and often transport us to heavenly spheres.

I hope that Paul Dawson-Bowling’s The Wagner Experience will reach and inspire new audiences, as well as reviving the enthusiasm of mature Wagner lovers. This is like having three books in one because it places Wagner’s life, his work, and a fabulous array of exquisite illustrations before us in a nutshell. We must be grateful that the author has so generously shared his “Wagner Experience” with us, and I am sure that everyone who reads it will be filled with renewed admiration and understanding for this great composer and his works.

The Wagner Experience is available on Amazon for $32.88 (hardcover) and $14.49 (Kindle).

Jonas Kaufmann Is “Pure Magic”

Review of BSO Concert

Andris Nelsons conducts Wagner, Mascagni, Puccini, and Respighi; September 29, 2014, with Tenor Jonas Kaufmann and Soprano Kristine Opolais

Without a doubt, the single hottest ticket of the season was the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s recent gala concert, which featured two high-profile guest artists, Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais, along with our resident orchestra and its breathlessly awaited music director, 35-year-old Andris Nelsons. The opening-night program of the previous week played the usual three performances and, in retrospect, was a carefully planned prelude (Mozart, Villa-Lobos, and Beethoven) to the following week’s main event. For whatever reasons, the superlative guest artists were available for only one concert, and so the previous week’s fine but ho-hum program did not steal the spotlight from this special and keenly awaited gala. There were only a few remaining tickets for this one-time event, a regular Saturday evening subscription concert at gala prices; they were quickly snapped up within the first two days they were made available to donors and subscribers.

This concert will long be remembered by those fortunate to have attended. Those who were less fortunate can listen to the concert on demand the entire year on www.whbg.org/995. There will also be an opportunity to see the concert on PBS sometime this season.

For once, your reviewer is at a loss for words to adequately comment on the superb music making. Where to begin? Despite three years in the wilderness without a music director, the extraordinary instrument that was totally retooled by the previous music director remains a sonic wonder. Maestro Nelsons has inherited quite a machine. What remains to be seen is how he drives it and where he will take it and us. Only time and the next few seasons will tell. Meanwhile, I can happily report that the overall musical health of this extraordinary collection of superb instrumentalists is good. We in Boston have long been spoiled by this orchestra, which is simply incapable of producing an ugly sound. No matter who stands in front of it, we are assured of tonal beauty at all times. When one hears excellence such as this day in and day out, one is really spoiled.

The concert began with a tremendous ovation of seldom-heard quality as soon as Maestro Nelsons entered. The TV cameras made for an even more palpable sense of occasion. (Unfortunately, a few seats on the floor had to be removed to accommodate the camera on a boom. Those of a certain age will remember a program called Evening at Symphony, as well as regularly telecast concerts from Sanders Theatre when the BSO had a Cambridge Series. How come those fine TV tapings were made with fewer seats having to be removed?) Maestro Nelsons, the youngest music director of the BSO, officially inaugurated his tenure with a stirring and deeply felt Tannhäuser Overture. To some ears, his opening tempo might have seemed stodgy, despite gorgeous playing by the winds and horns. I enjoyed his tempo of the Pilgrims’ Chorus, and I quickly thought, probably prematurely, of Celibidache, Knappertsbusch, and, even more prematurely, Furtwängler. The proper gravitas was certainly there. Things picked up with the Venusberg music, and here Nelsons captured all the inherent sensuality and virtuosity built into the score. It is impossible to sufficiently praise the exemplary work of the solo winds, or the unforced power of the brass section and the creamy playing of the strings throughout.

And then there was Jonas Kaufmann! This listener stands in awe of this artist, the world’s greatest tenor today (at least in certain roles). I had been to Carnegie Hall last February (and I was fortunate to greet him one-on-one afterward when he autographed my Parsifal vocal and piano score), and so I already knew what to expect. And, indeed, all the trademarks of this unbelievably gifted artist were there. Soft and beautifully floated high notes, plus power and strength, were abundant. But even more, Kaufmann seemed, in his all-too-brief “In fernem Land” [Lohengrin], to conjure up an entirely foreign and faraway world. Unworldly sounds emanated from his throat, and during those brief minutes Lohengrin himself was onstage. Pure magic from start to finish. The perfect intonation of the massed BSO strings provided a plush cushion of sound with faultless harmonics throughout. One did not want it to end.

The concert continued with the Tristan Prelude and Liebestod. Maestro Nelsons built up a carefully controlled prelude that had one true climax, as it should, but which does not always happen. Again, it is impossible to adequately praise the playing of this orchestra. It was such a pleasure to hear and experience all the harmonic tension that Wagner had built into the score.

As for Ms. Opolais, all I can say is that this music is simply not for her. She was almost inaudible at the climax, and even at the beginning one really had to strain to hear her. She might have found a Wagnerian role more appropriate for her somewhat slender sound. And to add insult to injury, the final note, the F# on “Lust,” was no match for the Flagstad/Furtwängler version, which is still the “Lust” of reference. To be fair, subsequently I heard rumors that she was indisposed.

After the intermission, the vocal works included a powerhouse selection from Cavalleria rusticana, delivered to perfection by Mr. Kaufmann. This was followed by a competent but by no means stellar, festival-quality “Un bel di, [Madama Butterfly] (which replaced the aria from La Wally). Ms. Opolais could be heard here with virtually no problems. The orchestra gave the singers a brief rest while they proceeded to knock out of the ballpark a gorgeously played Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana. How nice to hear the recently renovated organ blend so subtly with the strings. And how beautiful was the string playing!

The dramatic duet from the second act of Manon Lescaut followed. Here, both artists seemed to sing as one, perhaps because they reprised these roles from their Vienna concert a few months earlier. This is a fine duet, but it gives the tenor little to do. Mr. Kaufmann was exceedingly modest and generous to his colleague and let the spotlight fall on Ms. Opolais. She was clearly in her element at last and did a splendid job. Perhaps the best duet of the evening was the surprise encore, the end of Act 1 of La bohème. Mr. Kaufmann graciously let Ms. Opolais take the high C at the end while he sang what Puccini had written. Instead of walking slowly offstage, the two simply turned around and faced the orchestra. This listener, for the first and probably only time, heard the closing orchestral postlude as written by Puccini, which is almost never done except in studio recordings.

After innumerable bows and no further encores, the concert closed with the always-reliable orchestral blockbuster, Respighi’s Pines of Rome. Offstage brass on both sides of the upper balcony added special excitement, as did the organ. This provided a suitably high-powered close to a high-profile musical event, the concert of the season.

Jeffrey Brody

Jeffrey Brody, the Music Advisor of the Boston Wagner Society, is a composer, pianist, and coach and the Music Director of Longwood Opera.