While Simon Callow is a thoroughly entertaining showman, there are not many classical composers’ lives from which even he could create an engaging one-man show. But Richard Wagner (1813-83) was no ordinary man or composer, and an unbroken 90 minutes whizz by in Callow’s illustrated lecture, directed by Simon Stokes and commissioned for the Deloitte Ignite Verdi/Wagner festival, curated by Stephen Fry.
Before a huge backdrop of Wagner’s sculptured face, a miscellany of props litter a simple stage. These are the leitmotifs of Wagner’s extraordinary oeuvre, and include a wooden spinning wheel (‘The Flying Dutchman’), a plastic horned helmet (‘The Valkyrie’) and a red wine goblet representing the Holy Grail (‘Parsifal’). Not forgetting a golden fortepiano, on which Callow demonstrates that he is no better than the German composer, who ‘had absolutely no aptitude for the instrument and played it like a troglodyte’.
Wagner’s outspoken anti-Semitism and posthumous adoption by the Nazis have seen him despised by many, while the intoxicating music of his vast, groundbreaking, romantic operas has equally inspired cult-like devotion. Both aspects are considered by Callow in his chronological account of Wagner’s rumbustious life; yet he is neither apologist nor inquisitor, presenting matters from Wagner’s point of view in a consummate performance that steers a path between circumspect admiration and gentle ribbing at his madder antics.
Even if you have never heard a note of Wagner (and there are plenty of short excerpts here to remedy that), Callow brings this preposterous little man (and musical colossus) to life, giving an insight into the making of a troubled genius. To convey the idea of him as someone who spoke in a broad Saxon accent, ‘one that he made no effort whatsoever to get rid of’, Callow delivers Wagner’s quotes in a Lancastrian lilt. A simple device, perhaps, yet it’s typical of this well-researched show: a clever insight that turns this legendary character into a real person.
By Jonathan Lennie