Near the end of this heavyweight, densely written comparison of the two greatest opera composers of the 19th century, Peter Conrad discusses the place of Die Walkure in Apocalypse Now, and of La Traviata in Pretty Woman. He concludes that “Hollywood of course adheres to the customary division between the two composers: Wagner is a terrorist, Verdi a therapist.” Despite the slightly curled lip implied by “customary,” Conrad doesn’t much disagree with the Tinseltown summing-up of his subjects.
Both composers were born in 1813, felt deep nationalist sentiments about countries that did not then even exist, and each shaped the musical life of people well beyond their borders. From the perspective of the eternal, they were both geniuses; they most differed in their ambitions for their music. Verdi saw art as a source of comfort for the human spirit. Wagner thought — hoped — that his music might drive men mad. He succeeded in making his listeners feel that they were letting themselves go in a great, warm sea, drowning in music, willing themselves to die like Isolde.
Writing at Wagnerian length, Conrad tries hard to give Verdi as much space on the page, and his drama and music as much exposition and analysis, as he gives to Wagner. But of course there’s something that makes this impossible: Unlike Verdi, Wagner was his own librettist, so comparing the dramatic elements of their operas has an intrinsic apples and oranges incompatibility. The German’s pretensions to creating a Gesamtkunstwerk were simply not shared by the Italian, and Conrad’s learned riffs upon the plots of Verdi’s operas do not seem to go to the heart of the same matter as when he does this for Wagner’s work. He stands on much firmer ground when elaborating the music, which he does so elegantly that you find yourself able to call to mind the melodies he refers to.
For its first half, the book darts about like a gaudy dragonfly, alighting here on Stendhal and there on Auden, Darwin, Richard Strauss, Shakespeare, Marx and Mazzini. We get a couple of pages on Wagner’s slinky, satiny wardrobe, and how he “would not have understood why Verdi, whether at the opera or on his farm, wore clothes more suitable for a prosperous businessman.” Conrad displays some of his startlingly wide reading when he compares Wagner’s boy hero Siegfried to science fiction aliens: “HG Wells’s Martians who consist of brain-boxes with metallic pincers attached, or his invertebrate lunar Selenites who are blue-skinned brainless heads.” Even his comments on the composers’ pet dogs, birds and horses are erudite and witty — Wagner compared his Newfoundland’s puppies to human infants, “whose squalling demand for milk is ‘the most drastic expression of the will to live.’” As soon as the hungry urgency is sated, he noted, the live things tumble into a stupor tantamount to death: “Here, in both the kennel and the nursery,” writes Conrad, “the self-defeating coital action of Tristan und Isolde was re-enacted.”
His account of the composition of Verdi’s Requiem, though it does not disturb our view of the Italian’s indifference to religion, “comes close,” Conrad says, “to exemplifying Wagner’s theory about music as Christianity purged of dogma and doctrine.” Lucid about Wagner’s ambition to create a new religion, he addresses the question of whether he was “inventing a new religion or reinventing mythology.” In any case he succeeds, for me, in describing Wagner’s grip on opera lovers, that makes us return, for example, to spend yet another 15 to 16 hours watching the Ring: his “capacity to engross our time and take over our lives.”
In the final section, Conrad romps through the 20th century and present-day views of Wagner and Verdi and productions of their operas, including some close analysis of the Marx brothers’ A Night at the Opera and a wonderful rapid tour of Hollywood and Broadway’s treatment of the pair. He’s first-rate on the Bayreuth phenomenon: “In 1870 [Wagner] complacently announced that ‘the whole German empire is only created to aid me in attaining my object.’” Of Stefan Herheim’s 2008 production of Parsifal, he remarks: “Horrors were purgatively re-enacted, and the hours spent in the Bayreuth auditorium counted almost as community service.”
Of course it is not Wagner’s fault that he was lauded by Hitler and listened to surreptitiously by Speer, Hess and von Schirach in their Spandau prison, but “Germans are troubled by Wagner because they feel disgraced by him,” Conrad writes. “Italians are troubled by Verdi,” though, because “they feel unworthy of him.” Wagner’s second wife, Cosima, praised “the complete absence of animality in his nature.” Wrong, says Conrad, “but if he had been a better man — less erotically obsessive, less titanically selfish — he might not have been such a superlative artist.” Yet as Verdi’s second wife, Giuseppina, often said, he “was a great artist whose only faults were minor.” We need both composers, Conrad concludes, because they “represent two sides of our nature that are usually not on speaking terms — the virtue of charity or caritas as opposed to the rage of the egotistical will, a need for human connection as opposed to the mind’s proud solitude.”
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