Two centuries after the birth of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), audiences in Russia are beginning to overcome decades of suspicion shadowed by the horror of World War II and embrace the music of the great German composer.
The Novaya Opera (New Opera) in the Russian capital Moscow scored a major triumph with a new production of Wagner’s blazingly intense opera of doomed love Tristan and Isolde that was, astonishingly, the Moscow premiere of one of the cornerstones of Western music.
The gaping absence of the opera first heard in 1865 is explained by both the huge technical demands of a piece that lasts almost five hours and the suspicion with which the German titan was held after the Soviet victory over Nazism in World War II.
“This has long been a dream of mine to present Tristan in Moscow,” the Novaya Opera’s British chief conductor Jan Latham-Koenig said. “Neither before, or after, did Wagner reach such levels of intensity in his writing.”
So far all three stagings of Tristan in Russian history have been in St. Petersburg at the Mariinsky Theatre.
The Russian premiere took place in 1899 and this was followed in 1909 with a staging by the legendary director Vsevolod Meyerhold, the innovative theater genius who was murdered in the Stalin purges.
The opera was never performed in the Soviet period (1922-1991) but in 2005 the Mariinsky’s director Valery Gergiev — one of the few Russian musicians to champion the music of Wagner — conducted a new production that is now rarely performed.
While Gergiev this summer will perform Wagner’s Ring tetralogy in St. Petersburg, the best known opera in Moscow, the Bolshoi, currently does not have a Wagner opera in its repertoire.
For Latham-Koenig, the reasons for Russia’s treatment of Wagner go back to the promotion by the Nazis of a composer adored by Adolf Hitler and lauded by the Third Reich as the standard-bearer of a new German music.
“There were the political considerations after the Second World War. Wagner was not flavor of the month after 1945,” he said.
Latham-Koenig said that this is the fifth occasion he has conducted Tristan and such was the importance of the Moscow premiere that “I would not be taking the responsibility if it was the first one.”